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American Society For Nutrition

Interview with Dr. Josep Bassaganya-Riera, ASN Member

Interview with Dr. Josep Bassaganya-Riera, ASN Member

Excellence in Nutrition Research and Practice
The American Society for Nutrition (ASN) is dedicated to fostering interdisciplinary collaboration between nutrition researchers, clinicians, and other interested medical and research professionals.  However, these cooperative efforts would not be possible without the commitment of ASN members like the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute's (VBI) Dr. Josep Bassaganya-Riera.  In his work, Dr. Bassaganya-Riera shows unswerving devotion to an interdisciplinary approach as well as to achieving advances in nutrition research. As he tells us in this interview, “Nutrition researchers are naturally well-positioned to be on the forefront of personalized medicine, and comprehensive analyses of inflammation and metabolism instead of adhering to a more traditional, reductionist viewpoint.  Applying systems approaches to nutrition research and discovery requires integration of nutrition, physiology, statistics, mathematics, immunology, bioinformatics and computer science.”

Dr. Bassaganya-Riera's brings this interdisciplinary philosophy to his work as an associate professor at VBI, his time as an associate professor at the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences, and his appointment as director of the Nutritional Immunology and Molecular Medicine Laboratory at VBI.  Additionally, Dr. Bassaganya-Riera and his colleagues recently published a new paper that can be found in the July issue of The Journal of Nutrition (JN).  He was kind enough to give us more detail on that upcoming article, his current research, and his time as a member of ASN.

Interviewer: How did you first get involved in nutrition? What drew you to the field?

Dr. Bassaganya-Riera:
I became interested in nutrition, initially, as a veterinary student.  I saw the potential for preventive medicine and the ways in which nutrition might modulate immune function.  At that time, I was not yet involved in research, but it was already apparent to me the kinds of opportunities that nutritional immunology had to offer.  It was those opportunities that drove me to pursue a Ph.D in nutrition and immunology at Iowa State University.

Interviewer: When did you join ASN? What about the society motivated your decision to become a member?

Dr. Bassaganya-Riera: I began participating in ASN's Scientific Sessions and Annual Meeting at  Experimental Biology as a graduate student and joined the organization after graduation, when I was working as an associate scientist.  I originally joined ASN because it enhanced my ability to network with other nutrition researchers as well as medical professionals interested in the field.  It also made it easier for me to stay abreast of current clinical and scientific advances.

Interviewer: What other aspects of your membership do you find useful as your career has progressed?

Dr. Bassaganya-Riera: Of course, I am still grateful for the same advantages that originally motivated me to join the organization.  However, in my time as a member, I have also come to really appreciate the policy updates ASN provides, particularly in regards to those policy changes that affect funding opportunities.  ASN does an excellent job helping researchers predict those changes.

Interviewer: Can you tell us a bit about your upcoming paper in JN? What aspects of your research do you think the membership will find most useful and interesting?

Dr. Bassaganya-Riera: We studied two types of mice: one healthy and one with a mutation resulting in spontaneous intestinal inflammation.  Mice were assigned to either a control diet or diets supplemented with eight different types of dietary fibers and their combinations.  We found that consumption of three types of fiber dramatically reduced signs of intestinal disease in the mice predisposed to develop intestinal inflammation.  We also found that several of these fibers had an impact on immune function and gene expression.  Overall, we were able to demonstrate that these fibers had a beneficial effect in a model of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and we started to uncover some of the possible mechanistic explanations underlying these effects.  Additional studies will be needed to determine if these effects can be duplicated in patients with IBD.

Editor's Note: An abstract and the full text of the study can be found online.

Interviewer: What are, in your opinion, the biggest challenges facing nutrition researchers today?

Dr. Bassaganya-Riera: There is a significant amount of gastrointestinal health and molecular research going on in The Nutritional Immunology and Molecular Medicine Laboratory (http://www.vbi.vt.edu/nimm) right now.  We recently received $10.6 million in funding from the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases to develop the Modeling Immunity to Enteric Pathogens (MIEP) project, of which I am the director and principle investigator.  MIEP is part of the Modeling Immunity for Biodefense initiative.  The other three centers funded under this program are the University of Rochester Center for Biodefense Immune Modeling, The Center for Computational Immunology at Duke, and the Program for Research on Immune Modeling and Experimentation (PRIME) at Mount Sinai and Yale.  Our center is focused on characterizing the mechanisms of immunomodulation of enteric pathogens, including Helicobacter pylori and Escherichia coli.  We are planning to develop a computational model of responses to these pathogens as well as novel immune therapeutics, some of which are expected to include naturally occurring compounds.  Additional information can be found at www.modelingimmunity.org
   
We are also working on a joint project with UNC Chapel Hill, finalizing a clinical trial with Crohn's disease patients treated with conjugated linoleic acid, a compound we investigated several years ago in animal models.  Additionally, we have been working on a project for the past four years using RO1 funding, investigating the mechanisms of immune modulation by the plant hormone abscisic acid.  We recently demonstrated that this compound activates the same nuclear receptors that were modulated by some of the fibers we studied in the upcoming paper in JN.

Interviewer: In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges facing nutrition researchers today, and what potential solutions do you see for those challenges?

Dr. Bassaganya-Riera: In the current climate, funding is the single biggest challenge facing nutrition researchers.  These are difficult times, and we cannot afford to leave any stone unturned to guarantee the growth and sustainability of our programs.  My gut feeling is that shifting nutrition research from a discipline-oriented approach into a more translational and multi-disciplinary approach may help address some of these funding concerns.  Nutrition researchers are naturally well-positioned to be on the forefront of personalized medicine, and comprehensive analyses of inflammation and metabolism instead of adhering to a more traditional, reductionist viewpoint. Applying systems approaches to nutrition research and discovery requires integration of nutrition, physiology, statistics, mathematics, immunology, bioinformatics and computer science. Multi-disciplinary training of graduate students will broaden opportunities and help nutrition researchers face these challenges.

June 2011