Reaching For The Sky

pillsRoger Lentle admits his chosen field of research is no glamour posting. Studying the processes of digestion by, among other things, observing pig guts kept alive in a tank isn’t likely to furnish too many enthralling work anecdotes for dinner parties. Nor does it immediately strike you as an area of science ripe for commercialisation.

Yet the work being done by Professor Lentle and his team at Massey’s Institute of Food, Nutrition and Human Health not only has real commercial potential, but it could also ultimately help millions of people suffering from a range of health concerns. Think functional foods and smart pills, and of the benefits of being able to quantify how nutrients and drugs are dispersed and absorbed after we’ve swallowed them.

BCC is currently working with Professor Lentle’s team on three projects. The first is a nutrition absorption index that can be used to measure the rate at which the gut pulls nutrients out of the food. The currently popular glycaemic index, commonly called GI, doesn’t give useful feedback for adjusting food design, according to Professor Lentle. “By contrast, the nutrition absorption index would allow a manufacturer to design a food that releases all the nutrients slowly – and we can measure that.”

The second project is using a naturally occurring plant gum to tackle obesity. The gum from the leaves of the mamaku (black fern) engenders a phenomenon called shear thickening, where viscosity increases the more the material is stressed. Observing that Māori traditionally boiled mamaku leaves to stave off hunger, Professor Lentle speculated that perhaps it ‘fooled’ receptors in the wall of the gut, influencing gastric rhythm and causing food to accumulate in the same manner as a stomach stapling. The next step is to find a way of safely delivering the material in capsule form, before trialling in humans.

With BCC’s help, the team is also in contact with a urology instrument manufacturer with a view to producing a new diagnostic tool for irritable bladder syndrome. This condition causes the bladder muscles to contract involuntarily, often resulting in incontinence, and can be very distressing for many people. Whilst exploring how the stomach relaxes once food is on board, with the idea that interfering with that process might prevent obesity, the team began with a simpler organ – the bladder – using a cutting-edge video system to film and observe waves of contractions. “We suddenly had an instrument by which we could quantify the activity of bladder muscles, and determine whether that was normal or abnormal.”

Whilst the commercialisation prospects from all three projects are exciting, Professor Lentle points out that each arose from blue sky research, as opposed to investigations with a commercial application already in mind. “It gives you a level of understanding of a system that nobody else has, and puts you in a supreme position to be able to push it through those extra yards.”

Jaspreet Kaur, BCC technology transfer advisor, was pretty impressed when she met Professor Lentle earlier this year.

“I went to see him and he had so much to talk about; he’s the kind of person who is always thinking and always coming up with ideas,” she says. Since mid-year, they’ve been working closely together and Kaur appreciates his drive to commercialise. “He has plenty of projects and many with commercialisation potential. We’ve decided to start with these three and the bladder project is likely to be the first to commercialise. We’ve asked Tara Creaven (see profile of Tara in this newsletter) to work on commercialising that project.”

Professor Lentle’s interest in his field of study began early in life. “I’ve always had an interest in guts,” he remarks. “As a boy growing up near Nottingham, I used to beg trout off my grandfather so I could open them up and see what they’d been eating and how their guts worked.”

As the son of poor parents, however, he was encouraged to pursue a more secure profession. He studied medicine at University College London but maintained the research interest by also completing a science degree. Later, as a qualified GP, he took a scientific approach to his work, becoming an expert in the pathogenesis of diseases rather than normal function.

In the early 1970s, he immigrated to New Zealand. A proud socialist, he was particularly attracted by the health system of the day, which he considered one of the world’s finest – “Of course, it’s changed since, regrettably”.

The breakup of his first marriage brought him back to his first love of science. “I thought, ‘Bugger it, I’m going to do what I always wanted to do’,” says Professor Lentle, who completed a master’s in ruminant digestion at Massey University, then a PhD in ecophysiology, followed by a postdoctorate and a period at Sydney University, before he returned to Palmerston North.

The digestive research group he leads is now into its tenth year, during which time it has amassed a tremendous amount of knowledge. “People say, ‘Well, that’s all very interesting but what use is it?’ But five years down the line from observing how bits of guts in a tank wriggle, you can say, ‘Actually, I can now construct an insightful computer model of what happens to food in the small intestine and it’s based on real data, not some sine wave dreamed up by some mathematician’.”

And at that point, blue sky research becomes something else – a potential solution to some real world problem. “If we can, for example, work out how readily a simple sugar that isn’t metabolised goes through the wall of the gut, and can quantify that, then we can dope particular formulations of processed foods with that sugar and assess how they retain it,” he remarks. “That gives a manufacturer insight into the effects of processing and allows them to build foodstuffs that are digested slowly, and so are more conducive to good health.”

He considers BCC to be a vital helpmate in that next step. “It’s easy for scientists like me to know what the next experiment should be. But an organisation such as BCC is a critical tool in getting commercial benefits out of your research, getting tangible products to market and, ultimately, benefiting mankind in a grander sense.”

Posted by