Introduction to the HNRCA Series: The Longest Title in the World

The HNRCA is where I will be spending the next five to six years of my life, along with 12 other Friedman students. This series of articles will explore the cutting-edge research that’s currently taking place at the Center.

by Hassan Dashti

The HNRCA is an abbreviation for by far the longest title I have ever come across, the Jean Mayer United States Department of Agriculture Human Nutrition Research Center On Aging at Tufts University. All of the research conducted at the Center explores the relationship between nutrition and aging. Dr. Sarah Booth, the HNRCA co-director and principal investigator of the vitamin K laboratory, says that the center is an international leader in the field of nutrition and aging. The research conducted at the HNRCA attempts to answer questions like, what foods and nutrients will promote health and make us live longer? and which foods should we avoid or encourage to delay the degenerative conditions of aging?

There are over twenty active research laboratories housed within the center, each working to explore the effect of a nutrient or certain aspect of nutrition on aging. “People in the HNRCA are experts in their respective fields, and each has contributions in their own field,” Dr. Booth said. Found down the many hallways of the Center are labs for bone metabolism, lipid metabolism, vitamins and minerals, and numerous other topics related to nutrition and aging.

The nutritional genomics, or nutrigenomics laboratory, tries to determine how genes and diet interact. Here researchers explore questions like, are there certain foods that affect our genes and make us live longer? If so, what food interacts with what gene, and how is longevity affected? This can sound far-fetched, but in theory, research in nutrigenomics could reveal gene patterns that interact with food in a particular way. Previous research in this field demonstrated how unique gene patterns interact differently with food. For example, eating strawberries might have a more profound effect on your vitamin C serum level than that of your friend, due to the differences in your genetic makeup. Once these differences are better understood, we would ultimately be able to generate food recommendations based on our individual genetic makeup. Think of it as a Dietary Guideline, or a Food Pyramid, just for you. That’s pretty sweet.

You may be wondering how this research is conducted, and what role the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) plays in all of this. “The HNRCA is really a cooperation and partnership between Tufts University and the government,” Dr. Booth said. The USDA provides the core-funding and additional funding can be obtained from other sources. Each lab is run by a principal investigator leading a group of post-docs, lab technicians, doctoral students, and Friedman students, from both the science and policy departments. Some labs are more molecular- and cellular-oriented, which means a lot of bench work dealing with test tubes. Other labs, however, depend on human subjects and human volunteers.

Since it is a center based on “human nutrition”, much of the other research is conducted through the use of volunteers enrolled in studies at the Center and the examination of how a specific aspect of nutrition affects their aging. One of the current studies is looking at multivitamin and mineral supplement absorption. When you look at the nutrition label of a multivitamin pill, you assume that the percentages stated on the pill are exactly what you will absorb by ingesting the pill. However, it turns out that that isn’t always the case. Many things could affect the “bioavailability” of the nutrient from the pill, such as the actual gel capsule or the age of the pill. This study is looking at how your body absorbs these different vitamins and minerals from common over-the-counter multivitamins and mineral supplements. Those results could significantly impact the way we take our multivitamins and mineral supplements.

Now, what will my upcoming articles look like? In ensuing issues of the Sprout, I will be reviewing several unique labs in the center. I will briefly summarize the work conducted at each lab, but more importantly, I will focus on how their research will impact the field of nutrition studies. By doing so, I hope to draw your attention to you some of the most impressive nutritional research taking place right here on our campus.

Hassan Dashti is a student in the Biochemical and Molecular Nutrition program. He is an international student from Kuwait, and completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Even since he started learning about nutrition science at Penn, he has been excited by the research taking place in this field.

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