Getting your science to the street: why communicating with Society is so important

The “Science in the Street Event: Nutrition and exercise as important factors for the proper function of the biochemical metabolism”, which took place at the 47th FEBS Congress as part of the FEBS Science & Society activities, aimed at translating research data on nutrition and exercise to Society.
Getting your science to the street: why communicating with Society is so important
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Why is it so important to translate research data on nutrition to the general public?

Because it is possible to do prevention; researchers working on the nutri-epigenetics have demonstrated that food intake and exercise represent a key tool to modulate health. Each of us have an active role on our own health and on that of future generations. It has been observed that epigenetics is the 'key' of the 'door' of our genes. To switch 'on' or 'off' a gene requires the interplay of epigenetic mechanisms that – by particular 'functional groups' (keys) produced through one carbon cycle using food substrates – can 'open or close the door' of our genes, promoting or inhibiting gene expression. This occurs without any change in DNA sequence. Since epigenetic biomarkers can be inherited, each subject can mediate this inheritance and finally the wellness of next generations, which can be considered a form of ‘health programming’.

Researchers have the responsibility to 'translate' the main evidence to Society, also attracting interest of the policy makers.

How can nutrition help for proper metabolism?

Different kinds of vegetables and fruits should be included every day in each meal to address the health responses of our genes and gut microbiota; antioxidant and anti-inflammatory genes can be activated by the intake of these foods rich in polyphenols and fibers. A cup of green tea a day, without sugar or milk or honey, instead of commercial beverages, represents a source of bioactive compounds able to properly address healthy epigenetic responses. It is also a good choice to prefer whole grain to refined grains. Reduced intake of alcohol, red meat and its processed derivatives, saturated fats (i.e., coconut/palm oils), simple carbohydrates (i.e., sugars) and the avoidance of junk food, represent a good strategy to maintain health. The choice to prefer protein from legumes and cereals can reduce the incidence of cardiovascular disease and overall mortality in men and women and, additionally, it is useful also for the planet's health.

Society can be informed about what the programming of health to develop preventive strategies for wellness in society means

What mothers ate during pregnancy and gave as food throughout the first years of life can impact the child epigenome, leading to long term effects on health. Informing Society about 'what' and 'when' an excess of food can modulate health responses is the responsibility of each researcher working in this field. We can do prevention if we inform Society that an excess of protein/lipid during pregnancy can be associated with obesity/glucose intolerance in adulthood. Alcohol intake reduces the absorption of folic acid and vitamin B12, required for one carbon cycle.

Researchers can also inform Society about the obesogenic role of paternal obesity and smoking; fathers who drank wine containing residues of vinclozolin (a fungicide used in the wine industry) can increase the risk of infertility for 4 generations in males. Moreover, researchers should inform that an excess of food in boys during adolescent age (9-12 years old) increases the incidence of diabetes and cancer in their grandsons.

How should researchers communicate with Society?

In a simple way but coherently with research data; examples to explain complex mechanisms (i.e., the 'keys' are the functional groups used by epigenetic machinery) can reach all kind of audience. We can be supported by simple objects (i.e., show how is long the DNA is by using a strand of equal length); explaining why it has that structure and how it works can help Society understand in a simple way how molecular mechanisms control health and, in this manner, be more responsible and active in the management of their own health.

When should research be communicated to Society?

European projects include communication for education, which should be addressed to each level of Society. Starting from primary school and going toward middle and high school, education content should be constantly updated to the young and to the educators. Teachers, health care professionals (i.e., paediatricians, physicians) should be informed of the key role of early life nutrition in the programming of health. Also, policy makers need to be informed about scientific outcomes and about the strategies to prevent disease.

What is surprising in the interaction with Society?

My experience of the Science in the Street activities with adolescents, adults and older people highlight that everyone can become curios, and that simple aspects about the impact of several kind of common foods are not well known to people. Sometime people are worried, but when they understand the role of epigenetics and its reversibility, new light appears in their eyes.

To communicate effectively, it is necessary to use examples of what has emerged from clinical and preclinical data. Currently, longitudinal studies give us the opportunity to know what is the impact of specific food intake on our health. Thanks to this kind of research, Society can understand and address how the correct food intake can modulate properly our epigenetic responses, and what is the impact of food. Of course, the research on this field is continuously updating and every day new evidence help us to define the complex picture of the nutri-epigenetics in the control of health.

Do you have any questions?

To assess the effectiveness of health promotion it is necessary to invite the audience to formulate questions; young researchers attending the Science in the Street event formulated practice and research-oriented questions, such as...

  • Could it be useful to study the change of micronutrient intake in subjects with pancreatic cancer
  • Which kind of pathway can be analyzed to connect diet and cancer?
  • What is the impact of alcohol? How much alcohol can be used without any toxic effect?
  • Can the quality of vegetables currently available in the market guarantee the appropriate quantity of micronutrients necessary for the daily request?
  • Which kinds of bioactive compounds are in green tea?

Finally: researchers against fake news

Discussions held during talks with Society are a key occasion to address fake news, because it gives the speaker a close up picture of the audience and the opportunity to shape the communication to their main interest, and to cope with misinformation and fake news.

Rosita Gabbianelli, Full Professor of Biochemistry, Unit of Molecular Biology and Nutrigenomics, School of Pharmacy, University of Camerino, Camerino, Italy


Photo by Łukasz Maźnica on Unsplash

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