In Dr. Gregory Freund’s laboratory, researchers are discovering that the old adage, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” may actually be true.
Freund, a College of Medicine researcher and Head of Pathology, is studying the affect that diet has on the immune system and its role in the prevention and development of diseases ranging from autoimmune disorders to alcoholism. In particular, his research has focused on the impact that soluble fiber, found in apples, oats and other food sources, has on obesity, a leading risk factor for diabetes, heart disease and more.
In the future, his work may lead to personalized nutri- tion plans and treatments that cater to each patient’s immune system.
“We have developed techniques where we can change immune balance throughout the body with diet,” said Freund, MD, who is also Medical Director of the School of Cytotechnology at Carle Clinic Association. “Not only do we think it might be possible to prevent disease, but we’re also looking at whether it could effect mood and behavior.”
At the center of his work are cytokines, small proteins that resemble hormones, but are released by immune cells instead of endocrine organs. Cytokines play a sig- nificant role in the development of disease, from the onset of the common cold to chronic illnesses. They are responsible for the symptoms that people develop when they start feeling sick: fatigue, pain, loss of appetite and withdrawal from others.
But a cytokine imbalance also plays a role in chronic illnesses: If the body produces too many cytokines, it could develop pro-inflammatory diseases such as dia- betes and alcohol addiction. If it produces too few, it could lead to autoimmune diseases like asthma, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.
The Fiber Link
Based on previous research done in cells, Freund’s team began looking at using diet – soluble fiber in particular — to correct cytokine imbalance that may cause obesity. Unlike insoluble fiber, which passes through the digestive system largely intact, soluble fiber breaks down and forms a gel-like substance when mixed with liquid.
“Fiber actually changes the microflora in the gut,” he says. “People have been trying to change the gut microbiota with probiotic supplements, but we’re tak- ing a prebiotic approach. There’s definitely a gut-host interaction.”
Freund and his team will delve further into diet’s role in immune balance through a $1 million Challenge Grant funded by the National Institutes of Health. His team was one of a select few from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to receive a Challenge Grant. In the new grant, which called for novel approaches to solving addiction, Freund will study whether the neuroimmune system can be altered through a change in diet. By changing cytokine balance in the brain, physicians may be able to help patients overcome addiction and substance abuse. It could also lead to a greater understanding of why some can drink in moderation while others can’t.
“We don’t fully know if you can shift immune balance in the brain,” Freund said. “But if this works, we may be able to develop better treatments for addiction than are currently on the market.”
The findings may also benefit other research he has conducted with Illinois pathology colleagues Robert Dantzer and Keith Kelley, who have identified cytokine imbalance as a cause of depression. A deregulated immune system can not only lead to mood and behav- ior changes, but also to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease.
Through the research, scientists hope to identify the classifications and types of bacteria that result from the cytokine-friendly diets. The knowledge could lead to the development of better pharmaceuticals and treatments.
“Our dietary research is very translational,” Freund said. “It’s not an esoteric study with outcomes that couldn’t be realized for 10-15 years. It could make an impact very quickly.”