Kacy Greenhalgh has always had an affectation for medicine and health, and how health can be influenced by dietary habits. During her Master studies, the Luxembourg-American national was introduced to FNR ATTRACT Fellow Paul Wilmes and the ‘gut on a chip’, HuMiX. Fascinated by its potential, and how it could be used to study the relation between diet and health, Kacy’s curiosity led her straight to an AFR PhD at the LCSB at the University of Luxembourg.
It is an established fact that cases of diseases linked to nutrition, such as diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease, have been increasing over the last decades. As a researcher, Kacy is driven by her eagerness to understand exactly what the correlation is between the two. After she completed her Bachelor studies in Nutritional Science at the University of California in Berkeley (US), she decided to move back home to Luxembourg, where she enrolled on a Master’s degree at the University of Luxembourg and met her future PhD supervisor, FNR ATTRACT Fellow Paul Wilmes, as Kacy explains:
“He introduced me to the gut in vitro model termed HuMiX that has been developed by the ESB group at the LCSB. I saw lots of potential of using his model to study the interaction between dietary components, gut bacteria and host health and disease state. It was not really a conscious decision to be a researcher, but more my personal curiosity to a scientific question that led me to start my PhD.”
Understanding how diet can lead to – or help prevent – diseases
The human gut microbiome represents a complex collection of microorganisms, living in our digestive tract. Kacy explains that recent scientific evidence suggests that lifestyle, diet and drugs interact with each other and thus actually modify our gut microbiome – and that these changes have been linked to a series of diseases, such as colorectal cancer (CRC). Research suggests that a diet high in fibre reduces the risk of this type of cancer, therefore dietary interventions – such as pre- and probiotics – could have both preventative and therapeutic benefits.
“Prebiotics are food components that cannot be digested by the host but are subject to bacterial degradation in the large intestine,” Kacy explains and adds: “Probiotics are live microorganisms that can be supplemented to one’s diet for its beneficial qualities to the host.
“In my studies, I am systematically investigating the effects of two specific prebiotics in combination or alone with two probiotic bacterial strains on different intestinal cell lines representing different stages of CRC.
“My main objective is to get a thorough mechanistic and molecular understanding of the interplay between dietary components, bacterial metabolism and human physiology.”
Kacy adds that she anticipates that the project she is working on for her PhD will have recommendations for dietary and probiotic-based interventions, with the aim of reducing the presence of certain pre-carcinogenic genes that have been strongly liked to colorectal cancer.
Life outside the lab also vital
As is the case with all researchers – Kacy, mother to a young daughter – also has a life outside the lab and stresses that it’s important to switch off sometimes. She is for example a passionate basketball player, practising no less than four times a week in a Luxembourgish team.
“Playing a team sport and staying physically active, takes my mind off from work and allows me to effectively manage my everyday workload. Before going to bed, I sometimes continue working on some data sets or read some research articles – or just watch a movie and forget about science.”
“In the future, I would like to be more involved in translational research and link the gap between biomedical research and its implementation in real life and medical practice.”
Kacy is 3 years into her PhD so is naturally contemplating her next move and even though she may leave Luxembourg for the US again, she is already thinking about her future return to the Grand Duchy:
“I got lucky and found a research group that allowed me to explore my particular scientific question of interest. I do believe though that outstanding science is performed here in Luxembourg and thus is and will be a popular research destination for many scientists. After my PhD, my plan is to return back to the United States and apply for fellowships that focus on translational science and integrative medicine.”
Kacy goes on to explain that she would love to return to Luxembourg after that, and help implement evidence-based nutritional therapeutics in a clinical setting, an area she feels has room for improvement in Luxembourg:
“While biomedical research is the driving force behind generating therapeutics, translation of these findings into everyday clinical practice remains an issue, in particular here in Luxembourg. In the future, I would like to be more involved in translational research and link the gap between biomedical research and its implementation in real life and medical practice.
“There is much research that shows how diet can affect health and disease states. However, no effort or interest is put in Luxembourg in implementing tailored personalised diets for patients in hospitals. A cancer patient, for example, could be supplemented with particular evidence-based nutritional therapeutics in addition to chemotherapy.
“In the future, I would love to see a change in how medicine and health is promoted in Luxembourg by educating health practitioners and the public about these evidence-based nutritional therapeutics and applying them into their everyday practice. Currently, my supervisor is setting up a collaboration with the ANDL (Association Nationale des Diététiciens du Luxembourg), which in the future could be a potential link between the two.”
Inspiring the next generation of scientists
Kacy was among more than 100 researchers in Luxembourg who took part in the 2017 edition of Chercheurs à l’école, for example delivering a session at Lycée de Garcons with LCSB Director Rudi Balling. Speaking about the experience, Kacy says:
”Chercheurs à l’école has given me as a researcher the opportunity to share my research topic and my passion in nutrition with high school students. More importantly it also has allowed me to tell them that I did not know this at their age! In fact, I was clueless and had no idea where and what to study. This is normal and part of growing up.
“As a high school student ‘doing a PhD’ seems so far away but I feel that Chercheurs à l’école shows the students that there are endless opportunities in Luxembourg and abroad and that the they should not be scared off by not knowing what to do, but instead do exactly the opposite and put themselves out there, apply for summer internships and eventually they too, will find out who they are, and what they enjoy doing.”
About Spotlight on Young Researchers
Spotlight on Young Researchers is an FNR initiative to highlight early career researchers across the world who have a connection to Luxembourg. This article is the 14th in a series of around 25 articles, which will be published on a weekly basis. You can see more articles below as and when they are published.