The AICR 2019 Conference kicked off with a pre-conference workshop titled “Methods in Microbiome Research in 2019.” This workshop was chaired by Scott Bultman, PhD, a faculty member at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill where the conference is taking place.
The microbes in the human gut have about 100 times more genes than the entire human body, said Dr. Bultman. The diversity and type of gut microbes we have depend on the kinds of foods we eat and in turn affect our risk for cancer and other chronic diseases.
Scott Bultman, PhD, presented a workshop on current microbiome research and applications, covering among other things, sequencing, computational methods and gnotobiotic mouse models.
Having widely diverse gut bacteria from eating a wide variety of healthy foods is beneficial for our health, studies show. In recent decades, however, non-dietary factors, such as the widespread use of antibiotics in animal foods and cleaning products and the increasing prevalence of C-sections, have reduced the variety of gut bacteria we have, possibly contributing to higher risk for chronic diseases such as cancer.
Now that scientists have established the process of identifying and sequencing microbial genes with regard to diet, more long-term human studies are needed. Animal studies are limited by their sterile and controlled environments and exact unchanging diets, said Dr. Bultman, while humans are constantly exposed to many variables and, consequently, have constantly changing gut microbiota. Some of the many questions that scientists are exploring include whether healthy gut bacteria may speed up metabolism and help prevent weight gain and whether the gut microbiota can be manipulated to relieve the side effects of chemotherapy – the topic of a later presentation during the AICR Conference.
Stephen Hursting, PhD, led a discussion centered on new methodologies for investigating links between energy balance, metabolism, and cancer, with emphasis on integrating preclinical and human studies, mouse models of genetic heterogeneity, and the crosstalk between systemic and cancer cell metabolism.
Obesity and cancer risk are prime concerns of cancer researchers. Wednesday’s second pre-conference workshop, titled “Methodological Approaches to Energy Balance, Metabolism and Cancer Research,” focused on identifying new ways to address these concerns. Conference co-chair Stephen D. Hursting, PhD, professor in the Department of Nutrition and the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of North Carolina, led the session. A world-renowned expert on nutrition and cancer, Dr. Hursting has served on the panel of scientists for AICR’s expert report for many years.
As Dr. Hursting put it, “The Third Expert AICR/WCRF Report: Diet, Nutrition, Physical Activity and Cancer: a Global Perspective that was released in 2018 had a clear message for cancer prevention: The findings show that obesity is strongly linked to cancer– it is a risk factor for 13 cancers and cancer progression.”
Cancer research using laboratory animals can better inform human studies and help refine how the human studies can best be designed, said Dr. Hursting. He also emphasized the importance of studying metabolic approaches to improve cancer therapies and investigating how populations that differ by age, gender, or race might respond differently in cancer-obesity research studies.
Deborah Tate, PhD, and Carmina Valle, PhD, MPH, co-chaired a session about the use of emerging technologies for helping people manage weight and engage in physical activity
The subject of Wednesday’s final pre-conference workshop centered on the use of health technologies to improve health. The workshop, titled “eHealth/mHealth Approaches to Weight Management and Physical Activity Promotion,” was co-chaired by Deborah F. Tate, PhD, professor in the Department of Health Behavior at the Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina (UNC) and Carmina G. Valle, PhD, MPH, of UNC’s Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.
“Social media and other eHealth tools may be key to reaching populations that are young, rural, and racially diverse,” said Dr. Tate. Dr. Valle underlined that the use of eHealth technologies is very recent, and that it offers several challenges to researchers in terms of mapping out their scope and significance. Her own research showed that adherence to daily self-monitoring via Facebook engagement was associated with weight loss.
Lindsey Horrell, PhD, Julianne Power, MS, and Brooke T. Nezami, PhD, in the same workshop, described how behavior change leading to weight loss was possible by using a special website and “smart” tools like body weight scales and activity trackers. They presented their findings from two studies focused on helping weight-loss efforts among new mothers and African-American women who are at high risk for breast cancer. Healthy eating and physical activity, as well as self-monitoring by daily weights, recorded on smart scales connected to researchers’ labs, were features of the programs.
Results from these and other small-group studies found that participation was high at first, but was burdensome and tended to decline over time, resulting in less weight loss and even some weight gain. Social media support – from program leaders and from fellow participants – helped increase participation. The more often participants logged in, the more weight they lost. They and other investigators are evaluating and refining these e-tools to better reach underserved populations in the U.S.