Unlocking the mysteries of micronutrients in health
"You are what you eat" may sound like a modern expression, but Serge Rezzi of the Nestlé Institute of Health Sciences traces its origin all the way back to the father of western medicine.
"Hippocrates said nearly 3,000 years ago, 'Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food'," said Rezzi. "We are inputting our biological systems with nutrients on a daily basis, and metabolic pathways have been built to absorb energy from the outside, and also absorb what we call micronutrients, or cofactors, which are absolutely essential for life. So those essential micronutrients are basically controlling the rate of enzymatic reactions within our biochemical systems."
Until recently, however, medical science has lacked the ability to precisely understand, at a molecular level, how nutrients contribute to the development -- or prevention -- of disease.
Specifically, the Nestlé Institute of Health Sciences is focused on understanding the molecular relationships between nutrients and their effects on healthy individuals and patients at different stages of their lives. By better understanding those relationships, Rezzi and his team hope to develop a comprehensive picture of a person’s nutritional status, which they can then investigate in relation to that person's age, health status, genetic background and gut microbiota.
"This will, we hope, enable us to design the next generation of nutritional concepts, each one targeted to match the individual's needs and provide nutrition, health, and wellness," said Rezzi. That includes developing nutrients that prevent disease, delay its onset, or help those already stricken with a disease.
Analyzing phenotypes across the human lifetime
The Institute, which was founded in January 2011 and is located on the campus of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL – École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne), Switzerland, is looking at three main focus areas: brain health & ageing, metabolic health, and gastrointestinal health. Rezzi's role is to develop the analytical and biological competencies to unlock the secrets of nutrients and micronutrients.
"We’re using a systems biology approach, combining all different sorts of phenotypic measurements, starting from nutritional status, going down to genomics, lipidomics, proteomics, and metabonomics," Rezzi noted. "We’re trying to provide a comprehensive phenotyping of a human being, and trying to see how these phenotypes at the molecular level change over time at each stage of a person's life."
Rezzi's team is seeking ways to measure status of vitamins, amino acids, fatty acids, and minerals. It's an avenue of scientific inquiry that would have been difficult to study in a systems manner, if not impossible, until recently.
"Laboratory access used to be extremely limited in terms of throughput and required large amounts of sample, as well," Rezzi noted. "But now with the emergence of new technologies like UPLC, Xevo TQ-S, and UPC2 /TQ-S, we have a way to come back to those measurements and measure them faster, better, using less blood sample, and resulting in many more vitamin metabolites or functional analogs that we call vitamers, and get a higher resolution fingerprint of the nutritional status of the person."
The Institute uses UPLC and Xevo TQ-S triple quadrupole mass spectrometers for analyzing amino acids metabolites, and hydrosoluble vitamins. New methodologies for liposoluble vitamin analysis are developed on the ACQUITY UPC2 system coupled to tandem mass spectrometry. “Beyond method development, our challenge will be to validate those methods properly in order to warrant good reproducibility and quality compliance with standards in clinical routine analysis," Rezzi said.
Rezzi and his team have already developed testing methods to capture a broad spectrum of different nutrients and micronutrients as they are metabolized, a scientific first.
An interest in biology developed on a Mediterranean island
The world of breakthrough scientific discoveries is a long way from the largely rural, forested and beautiful island of Corsica, where Serge Rezzi was born and raised. There were no scientists in his family, but life in Corsica's natural environment gave Rezzi "an opportunity to be inspired from nature and curious about studying the way plant and animal biological systems worked."
"From my very early days as a child, I was very much interested in understanding the biology of systems, and observing nature and the leading organisms," remembered Rezzi, "and then very quickly, as I accumulated university degrees, I navigated through physiology and biochemistry and gave life to that passion for science."
Rezzi earned his PhD in organic and analytical chemistry at the University of Corsica before leaving for a post-doctoral fellowship at the Joint Research Center of the European Commission in Ispra, Italy. He joined the Nestlé Research Center in 2005 as a scientist and was later appointed Group Leader of Metabonomics and Biomarkers. He assumed his current position in 2012.
Building on a mentor’s work
Rezzi's interest in phenotyping can be traced to his association with phenotyping pioneer and fellow Waters Centers of Innovation Program honoree, Prof. Jeremy Nicholson of Imperial College London, where Rezzi is Visiting Professor in the Division of Surgery and Cancer of the Faculty of Medicine.
"He’s been a great mentor to me, has given me a lot of good advice and steered my interest for metabolism," said Rezzi about Nicholson. He also credits his PhD advisor from the University of Corsica, Joseph Casanova, for giving him "the sense of rigor in structuring publications and making sure that we do the right experiments for the right set of results."
Rezzi spends his time away from the laboratory playing tennis, indulging his love of cooking, and enjoying activities with his wife and two young sons. As he looks to his children's future, he considered the contributions he would like to make to validating Hippocrates' theory on diet.
"I’d like to bring a scientific contribution to develop a couple of nutritional concepts that can help people that are recovering from a disease, or even fighting a disease, or healthy nutrition approaches that can be used to maintain health and delay the onset of disease," Rezzi noted. "If I come across having some nice publications on one side to ensure the scientific soundness of my research, and get a nutritional product out of it, that would be at the top of my bucket list."
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