Engineering food for a healthier future

Canada research chair studies smart peptides

Imagine a future where the food we eat has the power to prevent and treat diseases like diabetes, Alzheimer’s and cancer. Rotimi Aluko, a professor in the University of Manitoba’s department of food and human nutritional sciences, is working to make this future a reality. Aluko has been appointed Canada research chair (CRC) in bioactive peptides, tier 1. This means he has been granted funds to study the power of proteins to improve human health and nutrition.

Aluko’s principal research area is in food proteins. His research looks at ways to make food more powerful and to keep us away from the doctor’s office. Of interest to Aluko are smaller molecules composed of amino acids encrypted within food proteins, called peptides. Aluko describes peptides as “smart molecules,” which can influence the human digestive, endocrine, cardiovascular, immune and nervous systems when they are activated.

Smart or bioactive peptides could be harnessed to treat an array of human diseases. These smart molecules are already in some of the foods we eat. The peptides are extracted and refined from one food source and inserted into another to obtain health benefits.

“These smart peptides [can provide] nutritional and health benefits to human beings beyond what a normal protein can do,” said Aluko.

Peptides are inactive when they are part of the greater protein chain, as they naturally are in food. The trick is to find ways to unleash peptides from the larger protein so they can become activated. To do this, Aluko has explored using digestion.

Within our digestive tract are a variety of molecules called enzymes. Think of them as a set of biological scissors, which work by cutting proteins down into smaller fragments that can enter the bloodstream. We have a limited number of types of enzymes in our digestive tract. On our own, we can’t activate most of the bioactive peptides in the foods we eat.

“In our system, most of the time what we produce is always the same thing because we have the same scissors,” explained Aluko.

A wider variety of enzymes are synthesized in laboratories. These enzymes can be fine-tuned to cut proteins more precisely.

“In the lab, we have access to all our biological scissors that really are smarter, more effective [and] can give us the types of smart peptides we are looking for,” said Aluko.

The potential of this research has been recognized by provincial and federal governments. Manitoba has established the Manitoba Protein Advantage Strategy, a program launched to make it the go-to province for protein food producers and developers. Aluko’s status as CRC in bioactive peptides speaks to the economic and health importance of proteins.

His research as a CRC is divided into two major components. The first is to tie form to function, to determine how the arrangement of amino acids in a peptide influences the function of the peptide as a smart molecule. This will help scientists choose the appropriate enzymes to produce peptides with powerful effects.

“What we’re looking for is peptides that are really very, very active that can compete with [pharmaceutical] drugs,” said Aluko.

“To do that, we need to be able to figure out what arrangement is necessary to give this peptide the power to do its job.”

The second component will examine how bioactive peptides influence the functions of the human body, including the mechanisms of disease prevention and treatment.

Aluko has already identified bioactive peptides that can reduce blood pressure. He and other researchers are looking at ways to harness peptides to prevent the occurrence of other illnesses, like Alzheimer’s disease. Scientists understand some of the root causes of this disease and are investigating ways for bioactive peptides to attack them.

Bioactive peptides can also be used to manage chronic diseases like diabetes. Certain peptides have been found to lower blood sugar and reduce body weight, which would help manage and reduce the severity of diabetes symptoms. Others have used peptides to treat cancer in research studies. In this scenario, peptides would be activated to target and kill cancer cells, without the need for chemotherapy and its negative side effects.

“In some cases, some of these peptides can actually either supplement or even replace our traditional drugs in terms of treating or [preventing] diseases,” said Aluko.

One delivery method for bioactive peptides would be in the form of daily pills or capsules called nutraceuticals. These products would deliver similar benefits to drugs, but without the negative side effects.

The other method of delivery would be foods enriched with bioactive peptides. Some of these smart foods are already available on grocery store shelves, like yogurt and orange juice. Aluko describes these products as “functional foods,” or foods whose health benefits extend beyond basic balanced nutrition.

Aluko envisions functional foods as an essential part of a preventative diet, in which people would proactively limit the occurrence of disease through the food they eat. He hopes Canadians won’t overlook the importance of food in regular health maintenance and disease prevention.

“It’s food,” Aluko said.

“It’s just that we have made it more powerful […] to help us stay away from the physician’s office.”