Dr. Mills – and also Dr. Maciej Chichlowksi who received a similar grant – are looking at bacteria binding to epithelium cells (the cells in the lining of the intestine) and what the effects will be when these bacteria are grown on lactose or milk oligosaccharides (complex sugars). Dr. Helen Raybould’s research then looks at the functioning of the cells once the bacteria bind, in order to observe how bacteria and bacterial products signal to endocrine cells in the gut, which influences the physiology of the organism.
Dr. Raybould explains that when you eat a meal, cells in the wall of your gut will be activated and release hormones that have a number of different effects on your overall physiology. This intestinal feedback regulation is how the body maintains homeostasis. Dr. Raybould’s research attempts to better understand this process by recognizing the different pathways of the intestine and the neurons activating the gut.
For over a decade, Dr. Raybould has worked as an acclaimed gastrointestinal physiologist in the Department of Anatomy, Physiology and Cell Biology in the School of Veterinary Medicine at UC Davis. Through interactions with Dr. Bruce German, Dr. Raybould discovered a new application for her research through the Foods for Health Institute. She began working with Dr. Dave Mills, who at the time was publishing articles on the importance of gut microbiota in wellness and disease, and she remarks that “some kind of alchemy happened.”
Dr. Raybould then began to wonder, “how cool would it be if the bacteria, being part of the gut lumen - the cavity of the intestinal track, where digested food passes and nutrients are absorbed - signals to cells?” By looking at the enteroendocrine cells that are very sparse in the intestines, Dr. Raybould determined that although they are not numerous in the gut, they play an incredibly important role in signaling to the brain and other organs in the body. These cells sense what we are eating and are crucial in managing metabolism and determining how we will handle the food that we eat. Dr. Raybould’s unique perspective offers a way of understanding some of the very complex metabolic effects of the interaction between the food we eat and the microflora in our intestinal track.
Dr. Raybould expresses the value she’s experienced working collaboratively through the Foods for Health Institute. She says that the multi-disciplinary nature of the FFHI is more than complimentary to her work, it has offered an absolutely unique opportunity for Dr. Raybould, an expert in GI/neurology, to collaborate with other experts in nutrition. She continues by saying that the FFHI helps to motivate people to work together across disciplines, and that the Institute offers a platform on which these collaborations can thrive.