European Researchers’ Night at UEF
The European Researchers’ Night is the biggest science event in Finland funded by the European Commission. This year we, early stage researchers at the University of Eastern Finland (UEF), took part in the event held in Kuopio, Finland, to promote our science in the community. This event is held annually on the last Friday of September in various cities across Europe and was held in Kuopio on 27 September 2019 at the Matkus shopping centre..
The main theme of our stand was fatty liver. When you hear the term fatty liver, many people may only think of alcohol consumption. However, there is now increasing evidence of a type of fatty liver, which is a result of unhealthy and sedentary lifestyle called non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). It is estimated that NAFLD now affects around one-fourth of the world population. Currently, there is no approved effective medication for NAFLD and lifestyle improvements including exercising and adopting a healthy diet are recommended treatments. At our stall, one could walk down a “liver path” through several stations to learn about the relationship of exercise and diet with our gut and liver. Each station was run by one of us researchers with different topics based on our own research focus. Each station had an expository poster, which explained scientific background in easy language. Mainly for the younger audience we offered interactive activities, which helped to visualise our message. We welcomed many interested visitors at our booth and especially lots of families with small children –even though part of the reason might have been that we were located directly next to a ball pit.
Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD) is an example of chronic disease where there is still a lack of evidence on any approved therapy. NAFLD progresses from simple fatty liver (steatosis) to non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) characterized by liver inflammation to formation of scar tissue (fibrosis) in liver and then to irreversible replacement of healthy liver tissue with scar tissue (liver cirrhosis) and ultimately liver cancer (hepatocellular carcinoma) and end-stage liver disease
We are highly international coming from all around the world: Susanne is from Germany, Ratika and Ambrin are both from India, Johnson from Hong Kong and Valeria from Italy. That is why we were extremely grateful for or Finnish helpers, who translated and brought us closer to the local community. A big shout-out to all the Finnish helpers, who contributed to make the event run smoothly.
And the journey begins:
Our journey started with Susanne’s station on Exercise and Fatty Liver. Our liver is very important for our health and is responsible for up to 500 different functions including storage of vitamins A, D, B12 and K, as well as iron, copper and glycogen; it plays an important part in detoxification, is essential in drug metabolism and has a key role in the metabolism of carbohydrates, proteins and fats. Our liver produces hormones for childhood growth, plays part in platelet production and controls our iron household. It also produces albumin, a transport protein, and proteins that are important for blood coagulation. The human genome contains about 20,000 protein-coding sequences of which 60% are expressed in the adult liver. A typical liver weighs around 1.5 kg. However, unhealthy lifestyles can lead to NAFLD. In a fatty liver fat is accumulated in liver cells as fat droplets. NAFLD in the early stages is often asymptomatic but sometimes fatigue and lack of energy indicate the illness. NAFLD can progress from simple fatty liver to Non-Alcoholic Steatohepatitis, which is liver inflammation, and then fibrosis, cirrhosis, liver cancer and ultimately liver failure. There are many risk factors for NAFLD including obesity, abnormal blood fat levels, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, insulin resistance, old age and high body mass index, family history, high fat and sugar diet or intestinal bacterial imbalance to name a few.
As mentioned before, exercise is the recommended treatment for early onset NAFLD and Susanne investigates in her PhD the impact of physical activity on liver health in individuals diagnosed with onset fatty liver disease. Therefore along with the poster, an announcement was also shown to recruit volunteers diagnosed with fatty liver disease to participate for her human intervention study. Professor Ursula Schwab, vice-head of the Institute of Public Health and Clinical Nutrition at UEF and in charge of the study, joined us at our booth to promote the study and the importance of exercise. Her support was very much appreciated.
Next was Ratika’s station on Diet, Microbiota and Nutrigenomics highlighting the other important lifestyle improvement, which is adopting a healthy diet by choosing the right food. Different food has different nutritional value and when it is consumed and metabolised with the help of microbes in our gut- the gut microbiota or microbiome, different metabolites are produced. Different foods and metabolites have various effects on our gut microbiota and health as well as our gene expression. The research of the relationship between diet, nutrients and gene expression is called Nutrigenomics. In the interactive game people had to guess whether foods like pizza, fish, broccoli, fries, rice, pasta, ice-cream, milk, walnuts, garlic, hamburgers, berries and orange juice were good or bad for your gut microbiome. A tip for you, some food can have both positive and negative effects on your gut microbiota.
So what constitute a healthy gut microbiome? One learns about the importance of gut microbiota diversity at Johnson’s station. Around one hundred trillion microbes from over 7000 different bacteria strains live in our gut, which influence our health and in particular NAFLD progression. In the healthy body, we are in harmony with microbes. They provide us energy, nutrients, vitamins and boost our immune system. During NAFLD, imbalance of the microbiome called dysbiosis allows toxic bacterial components to reach the liver and worsen NAFLD. The interactive game at this station was a maze illustrating that high fat and high sugar diet, and inactive lifestyle leads to dysbiosis with a loss of commensal good bacteria and an increase of bad bacteria with potential to cause diseases; whereas having a balanced diet, eating probiotics and doing exercise can help maintain the balance and diversity of the gut microbiome. The take home message is living a healthy lifestyle including healthy diet and exercise help maintain your gut microbiota diversity and keep them in balance.
Speaking of the immune system, Valeria’s station illustrated the crosstalk between gut immune system and the liver. There are many risk factors potentially leading to damage of the intestinal epithelial cells including stress, toxins, junk food, pathogens, medications and infections. Such risk factors lead to a change in the composition and amount of gut microbiota and the number of bad bacteria increases. In responds to dysbiosis, local intestinal inflammation occurs, and immune cells are activated. Subsequently, the inflammation spreads to other parts of the body including the liver, which again worsens NAFLD. The interactive game was a board game where the player tackles the problem of dysbiosis with the immune system. Initially, bad bacteria are all over the board which symbolise imbalance in our gut. By adding immune cells to the gut model, which symbolises the activation of our immune system, the bad bacteria disappear making space for good bacteria rebalancing the gut microbiota. The take home message is that your well-being can influence your gut and liver, so you should take good care of your immune system and your entire body.
At Ambrin’s station on Fatty Liver and Metabolomics we finally learn more about metabolites, which we mentioned already before. Metabolites are the intermediates or end products of metabolism and metabolomics is the study of such small molecules, which are less than 1,500 Da. It is linked to many different fields including toxicology, environmental metabolomics, nutrigenomics and has various real-life applications including new-born screening, drug discovery and biomarker discovery. The discovery of metabolites as biomarkers for NAFLD is one of the applications for metabolomics; identifying those biomarkers will enable us to improve the diagnostics of NAFLD. Being able to diagnose asymptomatic individuals with early stage NAFLD will help to treat at an early stage and to prevent irreversible damage. At this station we had two activities: one was to enrich the body with metabolites by sticking them onto a cardboard body. The cardboard cut-out also served as a photo booth where you can place your head on top of the “healthy body” and when more metabolites accumulated, the photo became richer. The other activity was a word search puzzle with words related to metabolomics, gut and fatty liver hidden.
After finishing the whole path, participants were awarded with a certificate and a badge depicting a healthy liver. They are a token of appreciation for joining us on the journey and a reminder that we must take good care of our body by having a healthy diet and exercise to avoid fatty liver. Our guests gained new knowledge of our bodies. Their journey of living a healthy lifestyle has only just begun.
Through these outreach activities, we hope to break the stereotype of a scientists and show that pursuing science is really cool and exciting. We will bring more intriguing activities to showcase our innovative researches. You are more than welcome to reach us to discuss about science and also life as scientists and PhD students. We hope to see you in our next outreaching activity.
For more information on the European Researchers’ Night, please visit their official website. An official short video was also published by the organiser where you can catch a glimpse of the event in Kuopio & Joensuu, available on YouTube.
Disclaimer: The European Researchers’ Night project is funded by the European Commission’s Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions, agreement number 817987. Early Stage Researchers Ambrin, Johnson, Susanne and Valeria participated the European Researchers’ Night as part of the “Building a Gut Microbiome Engineering Toolbox for In-Situ Therapeutic Treatments for Non-alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease” (BestTreat) programme, which is funded by the European Union Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 813781. Ratika is in the Genetics and Mechanisms in Transnational Medicine Doctoral programme (GenomMED) co-funded by European Union Horizon 2020 framework Programme under Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 740264.