At Cincinnati Children’s, important medical research is happening not with beakers and droppers, but with pots and pans.By Mary SilvaPhotography by Julie Kramer
Some of the newest laboratories for health research don’t have test tubes or centrifuges, although they might sport the latest cooktops and refrigerators. Kitchens are the new labs, popping up in medical research facilities around the country as science gains a greater understanding of the impact of diet on health. And while they might look like the spaces we cook in everyday, that’s where the similarity ends.One such space, called the “metabolic kitchen,” is housed in the new Clinical Sciences Pavilion at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. The kitchen is part of the Schubert Research Clinic, three floors within a 14-story research tower that bring together all the services supporting clinical research trials into one location. The metabolic kitchen is designed to look much like a home kitchen—but here, every item of food is painstakingly planned and developed to meet research-specific criteria.“The kitchen is where we prepare and package specific foods for allergy or feeding studies,” says registered dietitian Suzanne Summer. “We measure ingredients to the gram and make sure we have every aspect absolutely correct.”Summer is clinical research manager of the Bionutrition Core at Cincinnati Children’s, a group with an increasingly important role to play in health and science studies. The Bionutrition Core’s registered dietitians and technicians are solidly grounded in nutrition research, and work with physicians and scientists to help design studies and gather data related to nutrition.The metabolic kitchen that Summer and her team operate is gaining ground with the physicians and scientists of the medical center, as more of their work explores the impact of nutrition on human health. Such kitchens can now be found on the campuses of medical research facilities nationwide, from the Mayo Clinic to Stanford University.Cincinnati Children’s metabolic kitchen started in the late 1990s, primarily for cholesterol studies, Summer explains. “Researchers were looking at fat intake and how it affected cholesterol synthesis in healthy patients. The kitchen prepared foods for study participants so everyone ate exactly the same foods in the same amounts. Each study participant followed the diet, and took a bile acid, which affects cholesterol synthesis.”The studies were widely published and provided new insights into the role of bile acids in the body’s processing of cholesterol. At that time, Summer says, “The kitchen was designed to be heard of, but not seen.” It is now intended to be seen and heard of in its new location in the Schubert Clinic: It was intentionally designed to be visible and accessible to people taking part in the Clinic’s research activities.
Tackling DiabetesAbby Peairs, Ph.D., is one researcher who appreciates what the metabolic kitchen has to offer. An assistant professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Cincinnati, Dr. Peairs works with young people who have Type 1 diabetes. She has used the kitchen several times for her studies.Dr. Peairs and fellow researchers Amy Shah, MD, and Sarah Couch, Ph.D., have been testing the effects of eating a DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet on the kids’ blood sugar levels. The DASH diet is a well-known eating plan that emphasizes fresh vegetables, fruits, and healthy proteins. Originally developed to reduce heart disease, it has proven to have many other health benefits. She hopes that the studies will show that following such a diet will offer an easy, prescriptive way for kids with diabetes to stay healthy and keep their blood sugars under control.“We believe that a heart healthy diet that’s prescriptive in nature would be ideal for these kids,” Dr. Peairs says. “Although there are other diet planning tools for adolescents with Type 1 diabetes, there is currently no diet specifically designed to prevent the risk factors for heart disease such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol.”The DASH diet has been proven to modify those risk factors favorably, but researchers wanted to test it with adolescents first, before recommending that they follow the diet on their own. For Dr. Peairs’ research, all participants had to eat the same foods, in controlled amounts and prepared exactly the same way, for a specific period of time. That’s where the metabolic kitchen came in. “As a researcher, I don’t have the time to measure, weigh, cook, and package foods,” she says, “yet for these studies, that kind of precision is essential.”The metabolic kitchen made it easy, she says. Staffers worked with the researchers to help develop the meal plans according to strict DASH diet guidelines, made sure everything tasted good for the kids, and packaged the foods so that each child received the same foods in the same amounts. They labeled everything clearly so that the kids and their parents knew exactly what to do. And when the kids came in for their weekly visits, everything they needed was packaged for them to take home.Each child wore a continuous glucose monitor to measure glucose reaction to the diet, and data was downloaded from the monitors by the researchers. The study was brief, about a week in duration—long enough to see the diet’s effect on blood glucose but brief enough to ensure that the kids stuck with it.Dr. Peairs and her team are currently writing up the results of the first two studies for publication. She says preliminary results show that following the diet even for a short time brought positive results, with an overall lowering of blood glucose levels in all the participants.“It looks promising in that the diet did reduce the number of high blood sugars that the kids were having when they were eating on their own,” she says. “There is a possibility that with this type of diet, they might need less insulin because their blood sugars were lower overall. But we need to be absolutely certain so that we can give them the best advice.”
Additional OpportunitiesSummer is happy to know that the metabolic kitchen is playing a key role in studies that could mean healthier lives for children and adults. She is also delighted by some of the unplanned activities that have come about since the new space opened.“An interesting but unexpected side effect of the kitchen is that hospital dietitians are using the kitchen to prepare allergen-free foods for kids with eosinophilic esophagitis (a chronic allergic/immune system condition).” She adds that the hospital’s HealthWorks health management program has used it for cooking classes. And a parent support group plans to use the kitchen for food preparation demonstrations with families whose kids have Inflammatory Bowel Disease.Dr. Peairs and her colleagues are now conducting a third study using the kitchen, again with kids who have Type 1 diabetes. She sees great potential benefit coming from the research findings made possible by the kitchen, and notes that the families they’ve worked with are already seeing its value.“We got feedback from both the kids and their parents that they didn’t realize they would like some of the DASH diet foods that the kitchen prepared. So they’ve learned to improve their diet in ways they might not have thought of before. And the kids were open to doing it.”
Support & Information
Little medical research has been done on the importance of diet for health. But institutions and physicians are increasingly aware of patients’ concerns related to highly processed foods, food additives, and nutrition—and how these relate to our ongoing health and wellness.
Unlike IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome), IBD (Inflammatory Bowel Disease) is an autoimmune disease and can be hereditary. While a change in diet can help alleviate symptoms of IBD, diet alone is not a cure. Patients diagnosed with IBS may find that some foods trigger their symptoms, but this can also be affected by other illness, stress, or hormonal imbalance.
Small groups like IBDevoted, a support network for those diagnosed with IBD, aims to improve care, share knowledge, and fund further research on Colitis and Crohn’s diseases. Find them on Facebook: Facebook.com/groups/IBDevoted.