Simple Goal: 
Cure Disease

Andrew Benson portrait
People

Simple Goal: 
Cure Disease

Nebraska Food for Health Center scientists collaborative, determined.

Interview with Andrew Benson by Victoria Talcott

Research into the intestinal tract – “the gut” – has shown that the hundreds of trillions of microorganisms living there influence the development of gut tissues and the immune system and affect organ function and metabolic function. There is recent evidence that those trillions of organisms may also influence a person’s behavior, suggesting a relationship between the gut and the brain.

Andy Benson is director of the Nebraska Food for Health Center at the University of Nebraska, a $40 million multidisciplinary initiative combining agriculture, health and medicine with a goal of improving human health through diet. Benson is the Food for Health Presidential Chair and a professor in the University of Nebraska–Lincoln Department of Food Science and Technology.

The center’s research is expected to impact diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease, cancers, and metabolic diseases such as diabetes and obesity. Studies of those diseases show that the collection of microorganisms, called the microbiome, is functioning abnormally, he said, although it is still unclear if the abnormalities actually have a causal relationship to these diseases or are a consequence of the diseases.

STRAIGHTFORWARD MISSION

The main mission of the Nebraska Food for Health Center is to develop the science of dietary modulation of the gut microbiome – to fully understand how components in food influence the microbiome and to design foods that are clinically proven to promote beneficial configurations of the microbiome in individuals. A second mission is to train the next-generation workforce to work across disciplines and commercialize products that can aid in human health.

“Some of the diseases we’re talking about are horrible. They have huge impacts on individuals and their quality of life. Just imagine having an entirely new approach to preventing or treating these diseases, simply by dietary modification. That’s a game changer,” he said. “That’s the type of transformative impact we can have on these diseases.” 

Benson said he and the other scientists on the Food for Health team are focusing on a few diseases initially, including complex diseases such as Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) and genetic diseases such as Cystic Fibrosis (CF). While CF is caused by mutations in a single gene, there are over 200 different genes that are known to contribute to IBD. Thus, the genetic base for these diseases is very different. 

“It has already been established that the gut microbiome and the lung microbiome are abnormal in CF patients, and we believe these abnormalities may be more uniform in CF patients because of the common genetic cause. On the other hand, the abnormalities in the microbiome of IBD patients are highly diverse, reflecting the broad genetic base of the disease,” he explained.

 Benson believes it could be easier to “learn” how to modulate the gut microbiome of CF patients with dietary components, and then use those principles to develop dietary modulation strategies in more complex diseases such as IBD. Whether a genetic disease or a complex disease, most of these diseases dramatically affect life span and quality of life. 

“You can’t fix the genetic defect, but just imagine if you will be able to extend the quality of life with dietary modulation – it’s an entirely different approach to thinking about medicine,” Benson said. 

Examples of “functional foods” that can function as dietary modulators of the gut microbiome include resistant starches and galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS). Resistant starches are insoluble dietary fiber products that are found in whole grains, beans and peas. Galacto-oligosaccharides are naturally occurring, complex carbohydrates that can be found in some plants and they can be used as prebiotics.

There are five-year and 10-year goals for the center, he said; the five-year goal is to switch from a domestic focus to a global focus. The 10-year goal is to use food to intervene in some of the most difficult global challenges, such as children’s growth and neurocognitive development and their ability to respond to vaccines, both of which are believed to have some relationship to nutrient-poor diets. 

PLANTS, THE GUT, CHEMISTRY – AND DATA

The Nebraska Food for Health Center brings together scientists from other campuses, centers
and departments of the University of Nebraska system, providing expertise and research infrastructure that form the scientific backbone of the center’s work, Benson explained. Scientists are studying plant genetics, biology, neuroscience, immunology, medicine, food science, statistics, computational biology, and more. 

“These faculty members are rock stars on their own. Everybody bought into the vision because they can clearly see how transformative this is going to be and how their expertise connects to the mission,” he said.

Plant genetics are part of the Center for Plant Science and Innovation (CPSI) and is a critical part of the Nebraska Food for Health Center. 

“NFHC chose plants as a primary commodity on which to focus our dietary modulation theme because of the tremendous expertise that exists in CPSI and the immense varieties of crop plants developed by the plant breeders. Among the thousands of highly diverse varieties of maize, soybean, sorghum, and common bean that have been developed, none of them have ever been screened for the ability to modulate the human gut microbiome. When you combine the plant expertise with the gut function group — the group from which the Nebraska Food for Health Center evolved — and you connect that with the powerful expertise in bioinformatics and biostatistics, and the animal model systems available at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and the University of Nebraska at Omaha, you have a very powerful engine for discovery and translation,” Benson said.

Benson said the center’s research generates large, complex datasets. The data requires specialized computational skills for processing and analysis, so the Nebraska Food for Health Center collaborates with programmers, statisticians and algorithm developers, as well as with the Holland Computing Center.

“We couldn’t do anything without the Holland Computing Center – the supercomputers,” Benson said. The Holland Computing Center has the fastest computing resources in Nebraska and has two locations: one at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Schorr Center and the other at the Peter Kiewit Institute at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. 

“Our data are extraordinarily complex, high-dimensionality and often, we’re combining multiple types of data,” Benson said, noting that the team will ultimately be combining microbiome data with clinical data, dietary data, and other measurements such as body composition from hundreds to as many as 1,000 individuals. “Data drives a lot of what we do,” he added.

The Department of Food Science and Technology moved to Nebraska Innovation Campus in 2015,
along
with its Food Processing Center and pilot plants, to a complex called the Food Innovation Center. In addition to laboratories, the Food Processing Center offers the faculty and facilities for developing new foods, and harvesting of ingredients from plant materials that could be incorporated into foods, Benson said. There also is a human clinical facility in the Food Innovation Center, Benson said, in which scientists can conduct dietary modulation studies with human volunteers. 

“It’s amazing to have that capacity there,” Benson said. 

BACKGROUND

Benson is a microbial geneticist by academic training who spent the first 15 years of his university career conducting research to understand how the genomes of food safety organisms are evolving and how that impacts their transmission patterns in foods. He also teaches food microbiology classes for undergraduate and graduate students in the Department of Food Science and Technology. The human genome was sequenced in the late 20th century, accelerating scientific discoveries in human health. The commercialization of DNA sequencing occurred in 2006. 

“It became clear that we were going to have the capacity to actually study the hundreds of trillions of organisms in the gastrointestinal tract, which was something we’d dreamed about doing as microbiologists,” he said. 

“We established the Gut Function Initiative in 2007 and by 2008, were studying multiple aspects of the gut microbiome,” he said. The Gut Function Initiative had three goals: to understand the host factors; the microbial factors; and the dietary factors that influence how the gut ecosystem functions. They learned that diet has a major role in shaping the microbiome. 

Our focus on dietary modulation emerged from that research. “It has the biggest impact on the composition of the microbiome and is something we can use in a beneficial way,” he said.

It was the success of the Gut Function Initiative that formed the groundwork for the Nebraska Food for Health Center. Archie Clutter, dean of the university’s Agricultural Research Division, approached Benson and suggested he develop a Program of Excellence proposal around food for health. “Dietary modulation of the gut microbiome is a way to unite agriculture and medicine. That’s only going to happen at a place like the University of Nebraska,” Benson explained. 

Funding was discussed and native Nebraskan Jeff Raikes, co-founder of the Raikes Foundation and former CEO of the Gates Foundation and president of Microsoft’s business division, expressed interest in helping to fund a food for health center. The University of Nebraska central administration supported the program of excellence and provided seed funding, while the University of Nebraska Foundation raised the rest of the funding.

“It’s a really neat story of the planets aligning,” Benson said