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VAI VOICE

The official blog of Van Andel Institute
19 Sep 2018

Explainer: What is metabolism?

The Institute has launched a new program in metabolism and nutrition. Here’s why that’s important.

Earlier today, we announced the launch of a new research program focused on understanding how metabolism and nutrition drive health and disease. Our goal is as simple as it is ambitious — to find new ways to promote health and to better prevent and treat illnesses as wide-ranging as diabetes, cancer and Parkinson’s disease.

But why metabolism? And why now? Let us explain:

  1. Metabolism is the cornerstone of each and every biological process.

Metabolism powers each and every biological process, from regulating appetite to ensuring the heart has enough energy to beat. Metabolism is a constant balancing act; when that delicate equilibrium is thrown off, the consequences can be severe (more on that in a moment).

Studying metabolism is a complex endeavor that involves every other field in biology, including genetics, epigenetics, biochemistry, immunology, and many, many more. By incorporating all of these areas, our new program will tackle the full range of metabolism research in order to design life-changing solutions that translate into the doctor’s office.

  1. Disruptions in metabolism play a major part in disease development, onset and progression.

We’ve known for a long time that some diseases, such as diabetes, are totally driven by metabolic dysfunction while others are influenced by it (for example, cancer cells voraciously consume energy in order to spread throughout the body).

More recently, however, scientists have linked trouble with cellular metabolism to less obvious diseases, including Parkinson’s, a neurodegenerative disorder that currently affects seven to 10 million people worldwide. Evidence suggests that a breakdown in cellular metabolism, which ensures cells have enough energy to function, allow abnormal proteins called alpha-synuclein to build up, clogging cells and eventually causing their death. When this cell death occurs in the area of the brain responsible for our ability to move, the disease’s hallmark tremor and rigidity begin to occur.

These are only a few examples of how better understanding metabolism and its role in health and disease offers promising new opportunities to not only treat illness but to also prevent it.

  1. Rates of diabetes, cancer and Parkinson’s are expected to increase in the coming decades, making the need for new preventative and treatment measures that much more urgent.

Thanks in large part to improvements in medical care, more people are living longer. At the same time, however, our diets are changing — and not always for the better.

In fact, diet and age are two major risk factors for many of the world’s most challenging public health threats. According to recent estimates from the World Health Organization and others, the numbers of cancer cases diagnosed each year around the world are expected to rise from 14.1 million cases to more than 23 million by 2030. The trend is mirrored in Parkinson’s, which is expected to double to more than 14 million people by 2030, and diabetes, which has already quadrupled from 1980 levels. Obesity and being overweight, also major risk factors, already impact more 1 billion people world-wide, kick-starting a slew of additional health risks.

But where there are challenges, there are also opportunities.

That’s why we’re taking bold steps to address these problems head on by studying metabolic processes when they’re working normally and when they go awry. By leveraging the resulting discoveries, we aim to transform patient care, giving people more, healthier years through innovative, scientifically based preventative strategies and treatments.

Read more about the new program in our announcement here. You can meet the scientists in the program here.