Dr Markandeya Jois has set up a series of experiments in his new lab at La Trobe University in Melbourne. Worms with the unassuming name of Caenorhabditis elegans are living on a custom- made chip cut with channels and programmed with feeding schedules. They are fed a nutrient- rich diet through a series of tubes.
C. elegans are traditionally used for genetic research, but Jois has seen a new application in them and is trying to work out how to control their diet.
"Controlling the diet of these worms is a difficult process, but if we can work it out the payoff would be enormous," Jois says. "C. elegansis the perfect model organism for humans, and you can conduct an experiment on its life-cycle from start to finish in three weeks. Human testing and diet trials have their place, but it's very time consuming. But once we can automate feeding C. elegans we can use it to test the effectiveness of different nutrients."
Jois is a bioscientist working on a project that has become a life-long passion. All these experiments are the latest in a long and varied journey his research has taken him in an effort to find a credible prevention for Type II Diabetes.
"When I left India in 1983 no one there had even heard of diabetes," says Jois. "Now it seems like every second person has it. It's not just in India – in other countries all over the world diabetes is a real problem."
Jois initially looked at pharmaceutical solutions, but as these require human trials before a product can reach the market he changed tactics, and focused on a dietary solution instead. A dietary approach can be preventative by treating conditions that lead to Type II Diabetes, such as metabolic syndrome, hypertension, and obesity.
By approaching a nutritional solution with scientific rigor, Jois hopes to cut through the misconceptions of diet knowledge and the poor lifestyle eating habits we have developed.
"The problem with nutritional information is that there's a lot of claims without proof," says Jois. "Foods can be called super, celebrities can endorse products, but there's no regulatory body asking for scientific evidence."
He began initially by looking at where Type II Diabetes and obesity occurred in lower incidences than amongst the overall population, and examining different diets around the world. He found six tribes in southern India who were generally healthy, but consistently experienced poor health whenever they moved closer to a city.
"Living near a city can bring a very sugar-filled diet without variety,' says Jois. "Humans can eat 250 types of plants, but with a city comes processed foods, limiting the biodiversity of our diet. When these tribes are not harvesting wild plants they lose the benefits."
Dr Jois identified eight different herbs and spices which had promising impacts on diet – amongst them cinnamon and turmeric – but how much should be eaten and how often are unknown variables which required testing. This is where his current research with the C. elegans worms comes in.
"These worms really are the new rat of scientific testing," says Jois. "Since the 1970s six Nobel prizes have been won based on research involving these worms."
Using a funding grant from La Trobe Asia, Dr Jois travelled to the Shanghai Institute of Biological Sciences where a team led by Professor Jackie Han has a laboratory dedicated to developing chips cut with channels for worm farms of C. elegans. These chips could be programmed to feed the worms a controlled nutrient-rich diet at specific intervals. The experiment is automatically photographed at regular intervals.
"Our work with Professor Han has been a useful collaboration," says Jois. "My team brings the research and experience with diet and biology, and hers lies with the chips and programming. Professor Han will visit La Trobe University later in the year to see how our work has progressed."
Dr Jois' research is done in collaboration with colleagues in the department of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, School of Molecular Sciences and School of Psychology and Public Health demonstrating that a strong research link can exist between a number of fields. He is currently assisted in his work by five PhD students from different backgrounds including animal science, biomedical science and clinical practice.
Dr Jois is hopeful for positive results in his experiments, which in the future would lead to human trials and screening tests. Ultimately, he is focussed on his target of preventing Type II diabetes, and for his findings to be applied to help people around the world.
"Public education will be a real challenge, but clear science and a transparent methodology needs to be behind all this work," says Jois. "I'm not in the business of finding a secret recipe."