You are what you eat? Food fights disease

July 28, 2015

With his arrival at the Texas A&M Health Science Center (TAMHSC) Institute of Biosciences and Technology (IBT) in September 2013, Rod Dashwood, PhD, brought an entirely new approach to the old adage, “You are what you eat.”

It’s a simple premise: the food we consume is made of substances that can affect our bodies in positive or negative ways. Dashwood, a world-renowned expert in cancer prevention and epigenetics, takes that idea a step further. Through epigenetics—the study of how alterations in gene expression can be caused by mechanisms other than changes in the DNA sequence—Dashwood explores how to take the most beneficial parts of food and use them to fight cancer, heart disease and other ailments.

Dashwood and his team work to identify how beneficial substances in food can be isolated, replicated in the laboratory and used to prevent diseases. They look for phytochemicals—naturally occurring plant compounds—and other compounds in whole foods that inhibit disease or have other protective qualities beneficial to humans and animals. Such compounds would then be used to develop medicines and preventive treatments.

“We want to refocus the approach to cancer and other diseases,” Dashwood said. “Instead of creating therapeutic medicines to treat a disease once you have it, we want to get to the heart of chemoprevention, using these naturally occurring compounds to reverse, halt or prevent disease expression.”

“If we know, for example, that broccoli is a good source of phytonutrients, let’s replicate them in a controlled and focused way,” Dashwood explained. “Then, instead of eating four cups of broccoli every day, hoping to stave off cancer, you could take a supplement that contains the most beneficial and efficacious compounds.”

To explore this concept, Dashwood serves as director of the Center for Epigenetics & Disease Prevention (CEDP) in Houston, which was recently given the stamp of approval by the Texas A&M University System Board of Regents. He also has joint faculty appointments in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Department of Nutrition & Food Science, the College of Medicine Department of Molecular & Cellular Medicine, and the Department of Clinical Cancer Prevention at MD Anderson Cancer Center. With preeminent, multi-disciplinary and cross-institutional collaborations that include the Texas A&M IBT, four colleges, and components of AgriLife Research and the Texas Medical Center, Dashwood and his team focus their efforts on preventing diseases rather than merely treating them, thus, shifting the standard model of disease treatment.

The main thrust is disease prevention via a “field-to-clinic” initiative. By defining the main active constituents of food from the field, the researchers hope to derive medicines and supplements that can be used in health care settings. Essentially, the fruits of their labor may, in fact, come from fruits.

“Through its partnerships across the A&M System, the new ‘field-to-clinic’ initiative transforms health care by integrating nutrition, chemistry and medicine to radically change the approach to preventing cancer, metabolic disorders like diabetes, and chronic conditions like heart disease,” said Cheryl Walker, Ph.D., director of the Texas A&M IBT. “Beyond patient care, this research aims to reduce health care costs and improve quality of life.”

Dashwood sites more than 30 years of education and experience that prepared him for his new role with Texas A&M Health Science Center, where he is also the John S. Dunn Chair for Disease Prevention. Previously he served as the director of the Cancer Chemoprotection Program and as the Helen P. Rumbel Professor for Cancer Prevention at the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University. Originally from England, Dashwood received his bachelor’s degree in Biological Sciences with a specialization in Cellular Toxicology and Immunology in 1982 from the University of Plymouth. In 1983 he earned a master’s degree in Toxicology from Surrey University, and he earned his PhD in Genetic Toxicology from the University of Portsmouth in 1986. He completed four years of post-doctoral research in the Department of Food Science and Technology at Oregon State University in 1990. Career opportunities also took him to the University of Hawaii, and the National Cancer Center in Tokyo, Japan.

With such specialized training, Dashwood is well positioned at the intersection of nutrition, molecular biology and disease prevention.

“The link between the food we consume and the long-term health of our bodies is undeniable,” he said. “By identifying and reproducing the best parts of what we eat, we have the opportunity to stop cancer and other diseases before they even start.”

Read more information about the processes involved in taking food from “field-to-clinic” as a means of preventing cancer and other diseases on Vital Record.

Story by Lindsey Bertrand

— Blair Williamson

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