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Food can protect against environmental hazards

The cancer risk caused by air pollutants could be reduced by means of nutrition. ”It is certainly important to reduce exposures to harmful emissions. However, the protective effect of a healthy diet is also worth bearing in mind,” says Professor Roger Coulombe.

A diet rich in vegetables is known to protect against certain kinds of cancer. Coulombe’s research group has shown that the use of broccoli, for example, reduces the levels of biomarkers associated with exposure to air pollutants and linked to cancer risk. ”The consumption of plants in the cabbage family enables the body, among other positive effects, to produce glutatione transferase involved in cellular detoxification.”

Professor of Toxicology at Utah State University, Coulombe holds a Fulbright Saastamoinen Distinguished Chair position at the University of Eastern Finland. The purpose of the position is to enhance research collaboration with top American researchers especially in the field of health sciences. Last autumn, he spent a month on the Kuopio Campus, and the next visit is due to take place this year.

New study module on gut health and food safety

One of Coulombe’s hosts in Kuopio is Hani El-Nezami, Professor of Gut Health and Food Safety at the Institute of Public Health and Clinical Nutrition. Their collaboration in research and education goes back years. A new development is the study module Gut health and food safety that was initiated last autumn with Coulombe as one of the lecturers.

Professors Roger Coulombe (left) and Hani El-Nezami.

Carried out entirely in English and mainly by visiting lecturers, the study module is highly topical, according to Coulombe. ”It reflects well the strong expertise at UEF and the growing research evidence on the importance of gut microbiota to health.”

”20 years ago, the role of gut microbiota was poorly known, but now they are known to be involved in many diseases, from diabetes to cancer and even depression.”

Diet, in turn, affects what kinds of microbiota prevail in the gut. Among El-Nezami’s and Coulombe’s shared research interests are dietary interventions to modify gut microbiota in order to reduce the risk of cancer and other diseases. A recent study on poultry showed that lactic acid bacteria present in cheese and yoghurt, for example, strengthen the body’s defense against harmful exposures.

Data related to human exposure will be collected in the ongoing Kuopio Birth Cohort (KuBiCo) study, in collaboration with Markku Pasanen, Professor of Toxicology at UEF. The health of 5,000 mother-child pairs is monitored in numerous ways starting from pregnancy. ”Our aim is to study how exposure to air pollutants, among other things, is reflected in the expression of different biomarkers predictive of health outcomes. Similar data will be collected in the normally picturesque Cache Valley of Utah that has high air pollution peaks during the winter months,” Coulombe says. Utah State University is located in Cache Valley.

”We also want to investigate how these changes are linked to gut microbiota,” El-Nezami adds. ”It will be interesting to see if exposure to pollution can alter gut microbiota - and if targeted modification of gut microbiota could enable us to reduce the harmful effects of exposure.”

According to El-Nezami, future research may focus more on exposome, in other words the impact of all environmental exposures on the body as a whole. ”There we have barely scratched the surface.”

Text Ulla Kaltiala Photos Raija Törrönen and Ulla Kaltiala