Episode 36: Family-Based Research with Dr. David Ma

This week we’re excited to welcome Dr. David Ma to the podcast. Dr. Ma is the Director of the Guelph Family Health Study and a Professor at the University of Guelph. In this episode we cover a lot of ground, including the significance of the GFHS and animal-based research, and how to navigate nutrition and science news in the media. Tune in to listen and learn more!

Episode Transcript:

Lisa Tang  0:05 

Hello and welcome to the Healthy Habits, Happy Homes podcast hosted by the Guelph Family Health Study.

Sabrina Douglas  0:11 

If you’re interested in the most recent research and helpful tips for a healthy, balanced living for you and your family, then this podcast is for you. In each episode, we will bring you topics that are important to your growing family, and guests who will share their expertise and experience with you.

Lisa Tang  0:27 

Our quick tips will help your family build healthy habits for a happy home.

Hello, and welcome back to The Healthy Habits, Happy Homes podcast. I’m Lisa Tang.

Sabrina Douglas  0:42 

And I’m Sabrina Douglas. And this week, we’re really happy to have Dr. David Ma on the podcast. Dr. Ma is the founding director of the Guelph Family Health Study and a professor in the Department of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences at the University of Guelph. Welcome, David, and thanks for joining us on the podcast.

David Ma  0:59 

Thank you for having me.

Lisa Tang  1:01 

To get started. Can you tell us a bit about your education and research journey and how you got to your current role as the director of the Guelph Family Health Study?

David Ma  1:10 

Sure. So, I’ll give you the short version. So, I did my undergraduate degree at the University of Alberta in biochemistry. And, then I was looking for summer opportunities and started working in a nutrition lab with Dr. Tom Clinton. That led to the start of a masters and eventually a PhD degree in Medical Sciences, actually, focusing on understanding the relationship between dietary fat and cancer. Then, I moved to Texas A & M University in The States in Texas, and pursued a postdoctoral degree there for a couple years, and then moved to my first faculty appointment at the University of Toronto, where I continued to pursue my interests looking at dietary fat, and cancer. And, just to back up a little bit at University at Texas A&M, I did some research on omega 3s and folate in colon cancer. So, I’ve had a long career in cancer and particularly with interest in all aspects related to dietary fat. And then, in 2007, I moved to the University of Guelph where I continue to do research on dietary fat and cancer. But, a few years afterwards, it was through chance meetings and discussions that began the early beginnings of the Guelph Family Health Study… trying to move research from the bench to the bedside. And so, there was, you know, a great appreciation for the fact that we have a lot of wonderful researchers at the University of Guelph — we don’t have a medical school, but we have strong expertise in Nutritional Sciences. And we have two departments of nutrition at the University of Guelph, and what better way to bring together groups of individuals with similar interests to tackle big problems of the day. And the big problem of the day was really trying to understand determinants of health beginning early in life. And that began the early discussions of informative discussions, giving rise to the launch of the Guelph Family Health Study, in 2014. And soon after we started recruiting families, hiring staff, and taking on graduate students to undertake the research.

Lisa Tang  3:38 

Thanks, David, thanks for sharing that. It’s always so interesting to hear people’s careers and how they got to where they were today. And, as one of the graduate students that you’ve hired, thank you. So, I guess my next question really is, from your perspective, what is the significance of a study like the Guelph Family Health Study? And what long term goals do you have in mind for the for the study?

David Ma  4:04 

The importance of the Guelph Family Health Study can’t be understated, in that we’re really working with people in the community. And it’s an opportunity to bring together both researchers working at the university, the academics, with community members who would benefit from that research. And we have to have — it has to be a two-way conversation. It can’t be a top-down approach, to make research impactful, we really need to see problems from the lens of the community — those that were that will be most impacted by the research and contributing to the research as well. The long-term goal is to better understand the determinants of health in a gold-standard framework, and a gold standard framework is working with people. I also do a lot of research using animal and experimental models. Those are just models, whereas working with people, you truly understand all the complexities, all the nuances, all the challenges that go into Health Promotion Research. So the, the value of the Guelph Family Health Study can’t be understated, because we’re really capturing: What are the realities of today? And then how can we problem solve to address the issues and needs of families today to support them in their journey towards continued long-term health and quality of life — not only for the parents, but also for, importantly, for the children as they grow up.

Sabrina Douglas  5:36 

Thank you for sharing that. And you mentioned that you do a lot of work in animal models for Health Research, and we don’t talk about that a lot on this podcast. But, a lot of people might wonder why scientists use animal models and what they can teach us about human health. So, we’re wondering how you would explain this to folks.

David Ma  5:55 

Sure, there’s a time and place for all different types of experimental and study models. And, so the importance of animal models is it allows us to examine ideas that we would not otherwise be able to do in humans. So, for example, I study cancer biology and nutrition, and experimental models. And so, in animal models, we’re able to look at the entirety of the lifecycle of a cancer in a shorter period, whereas — shorter period moving in months, weeks and months — versus in humans, which may take several decades. So that’s I think, a really simple example of the power of animal models, it enables us to study questions in a timeframe that is doable. And, also allows us to more precisely look at cellular and molecular mechanisms, looking at changes in DNA, changes in how the cells — individual cells work and function. And, this is not very feasible in the human context, in the sense that tumours take a long time to grow, they may go very differently from each other. Whereas in experimental models, it’s a reproducible model that enables us to more readily study the problem at hand. So, there’s a time and place for models to look at potential cause and effect — the how of what’s going on. But, I also want to stress that animal research is highly regulated in Canada. The animals that we utilize in my research get better care than my own children. So, it’s highly regulated, they’re well taken care of. And also, we aim to utilize as few animals as possible to answer the question that we are interested in. Which is in contrast to human research, where we literally want to study everyone. [laugh] And, in contrast, in animal research, we want to get to an answer with as few animals as possible. Recognizing that animals have a powerful role to play, but, we also want to mitigate their use.

Lisa Tang  8:13 

Thanks, David. Wow, that’s actually a lot to consider. And you gave us a lot of information that I didn’t know previously. Just this kind of a side question that kind of popped up while you were talking. I guess my assumption would be that these are very specific mice. Like let’s say a mouse was not respecting my property lines, and I happen to catch it, could I bring it to your lab, or these very specific animals that you’re working with?

David Ma 8:38 

Sure, a great question. So, the animals that we utilize are specially bred. They’re well-characterized in terms of their, for example, their genetic profile, their physical characteristics, etc. And so, they’re not our garden-variety field mouse, many models are very specialized in the sense that we have specialized most models that we can study for cancer, for Alzheimer’s, for diabetes… And so, these are purposely bred and developed experimental models to allow us to study specific attributes related to certain types of chronic diseases.

Lisa Tang  9:19 

Wow, thank you for explaining that. Now, in terms of what we see in the media, right?  So, when we see like a scientific headline that says, you know, we’ve solved cancer, and it’s kind of like this grandiose headline, and then we find out that models were done with mice or they were animal models, what are some key things that we need to keep in mind as we’re reading or interpreting this study?

David Ma  9:44 

Yeah, another great question. So knowledge translation and dissemination, communication of science is not an easy task, and newspapers and other such similar platforms, they have to sell their news. And so, oftentimes the headlines have to be attention-grabbing. So, one has to be very skeptical of the headlines and to then read the read the actual details to better understand what’s actually going on, what are the strengths and limitations of the studies. And so, there is a need to be more educated about science and how it works. And not to take for granted that there is a cure. But to know that, you know, there’s a bit of a hierarchy of research. And certainly, the default in terms of gold standard is human-based research. Whereas all other types of research, be it animals or working with cells in a petri dish, there are models that help give us insights into what’s going on. Ultimately, we have to bring it back to the human condition, and whether or not the things that are very promising in animal models, and whether or not they will lead to hypothesize something that is substantial and concrete. And so, science continues to evolve in all sorts of disciplines. One important thing to take note in terms of nutrition and health research, is that, well, in particular with nutrition research, it’s a very young discipline. It’s really only a couple 100 years old, whereas natural sciences, like math, physics and philosophy are centuries old, and so they’ve already gone through their period of mistakes and, and contradictions and flip-flopping. Whereas, you know, in Nutritional Sciences, for example, it’s almost like every other day, the messaging changes, depending upon what research group does what and  slightly differently. And so, people are seeing in real time, what’s going on in terms of the scientific process, and the scientific method of observing and testing, and then formulating new questions and to get to continue to challenge those questions. But, over time, we get to a more precise answer where we have more confidence in that answer. Whereas, we see in other sciences where it seems to be very concrete, and people know exactly what’s going on. In Nutritional Sciences, we’re still a very young science, and we’re going to continue to learn, in other words, you know, make some mistakes along the way. But, those are not really mistakes. That’s just really learning from past experiences to build upon our base of knowledge, so that, in the end, we get to a stronger point of time where we have more confidence in our findings.

Lisa Tang  12:50 

Yeah. And I find actually, one thing that you said was really interesting about how there was a lot of flip-flopping. But what’s different now is that because the nutrition is newer, this flip-flopping sometimes tends to happen in front of the media, right? Like the media gets a hold of this. And then, so like you said, flip-flopping, like not flip-flop, but new knowledge happened before, it just wasn’t done with digital communication technology.

David Ma  13:14 

Right? So that’s, that’s absolutely right. How science is done today is much more transparent, open to everyone. And instantly, as well. Whereas, in olden times, [laugher] before we had the internet, it took time for things to, you know, be communicated through conferences to newspapers. So, science is happening much faster now than ever before.

Sabrina Douglas  13:41 

And thinking about the COVID 19 pandemic, it’s put a lot of emphasis on the scientific process in ways that we haven’t seen in the media before. So, it’s really kind of forced us into learning more about vaccine development, for example, medical science and public health management. There’s so many misconceptions in those areas. And so, we’re wondering, are there any misconceptions about Nutritional Science and research that you would want to inform people about?

David Ma  14:11 

Yeah, great segue, because there are many similarities in terms of what’s happening with COVID-19 and Nutritional Sciences. It’s happening at lightning speed. It’s happening right in front of everyone. It seems like everyone’s an expert, and not an expert at the same time. So, I think, you know, in terms of general public, we have to be very discerning of the evidence and the information that we receive. Is it high-quality evidence that we’re reading about? Is it from credible individuals? And then, I think importantly, though, I think the public now has a greater awareness that there is a spectrum of opinion, even in the sciences. And, it may seem like they’re polar opposites, in terms of what you know what the headlines are saying, but, so I think, you know, it’s very important for folks to appreciate that eventually there will be a consensus of opinion of the majority of the research out there. So, early days, it may seem like it’s very polarized, but you give it some time, in terms of more people doing the research in that particular area, looking at the totality of the evidence and findings, then people are able to make more concrete conclusions based on the growing evidence  that is emerging and accumulating. So, it seems to be occurring at a dizzying pace, but I think, you know, people need to be, I guess, have to be a little bit patient. Because science doesn’t happen like they do in the movies, where you simply go from one scene to the next, and all sudden there’s a cure. [laughter] But, in science, from one scene to the next scene is, you know, several weeks and months of very hard work by many, many very dedicated researchers. And, that’s been going on in Nutritional Sciences for many years. So, I think the takeaway from, you know, in terms of important nutrition messages to convey to families, and the general public, is that the Nutritional Sciences will continue to evolve. But, we’re getting better and better at it. Simple messages about, you know, eating a balanced diet, moving more, and really, you know, fitting nutrition within the context of a number of health behaviours is important. That’s also something that we’ve been learning more about in recent years. In the sense that there is no magic bullet. [laughter] But, it really is a combination of good nutrition, moving more, getting a good night’s rest, reducing sedentary behaviour, reducing stress — a whole host of things that go on and contribute to our health.

Lisa Tang  17:05 

Thanks, David. I’m just gonna put it out there, though, a magic bullet would be pretty great. If that existed. [laughter]

David Ma  17:11 

It would. And, certainly that’s something to strive for. And, perhaps one day, but I think there’s a lot of things to also enjoy from the fact that there are a lot of things that contribute to our health. So, getting out and having a walk with your dog or friends and family, you know, when safe. Getting a good night’s rest… these are all beneficial things that I think people will take pleasure in.

Lisa Tang  17:39 

Yeah, getting a good night’s rest is definitely up there for me. So, I hear… because I know you have a number of graduate students that you  oversee or supervise and I hear a lot of really cool things that are going on in your research lab…I was wondering if you could share with us some of the types of research that you’re working on outside of your role with the Guelph Family Health Study?

David Ma  18:01 

Sure. So, for many years, I’ve been doing research on Omega 3s and breast-cancer prevention. So, we’ve had some grants in this area that has allowed us to better understand the different types of Omega 3s and their influence on breast-cancer risk, using experimental mouse models. What we can say is that all types of Omega 3s that you find either in plant sources, like flax and canola, or marine sources, are all beneficial in terms of cancer prevention. And, what I mean by cancer prevention, we are able to show that this the number and size of tumours are reduced by a third over a life-span of consuming Omega3s. What we’ve also found is that while all Omega 3s are beneficial, marine-based Omega 3s — and this is the EPA and DHA that you find in fish-oil tablets, you know, in pharmacies, health food stores, Costco, etc.,— they’re probably about eight times more potent than plant-based Omega 3s. So, if you’re looking for a little bit more punch, marine-based Omega 3s can give you that. But, I would say that, analogous to mutual funds, plant-based Omega 3s, which  contains the form alpha linolenic acid, or ALA, for short, is like a mutual fund — a little bit everyday goes a long way towards a healthy lifestyle. So, that’s been a long-standing area of research of mine, separate and apart from the Guelph Family Health Study. In recent years, we’ve become very interested in the role of the Omega 3s in concussion. And so, I’ve had a long-standing interest in trying to understand the role of Omega 3s in the brain, and what we noticed is that there really is a lack of research in terms of Omega 3s in brain health in this type of injury. So, sports-related type of injuries, where you have a mild traumatic brain injury — a little, you know, repeated blows to the head that you will incur in high-impact sports like football and rugby and soccer — what’s emerged in the last decade is that these repeated blows, translates to long-term cognitive impairment. And so, we first started some early research, looking at developing an experimental model to study the role of Omega 3s and whether or not it’s beneficial. And, our early evidence suggests that mice that were pre-exposed to Omega 3s recover very quickly from brain insult, as compared to mice that were not exposed to Omega 3s. So, this is really cool, because we are one of the very few labs that are pursuing this kind of research, and when we come back from the pandemic, you know, there’ll be a lot of sports, people interested in getting back into the swing of things, so to speak. And, so it goes to show that nutrition has as many different roles in our life, not just in health, but also in physical activity.

Sabrina Douglas  21:19 

Yeah, that’s really interesting. I don’t think a lot of people would think about the association between Omega 3s and concussions.

David Ma  21:26 

Oh, yeah, just to add a little bit further, this makes sense because the brain is one of the most highly enriched organs in Omega 3s. So, there’s a bit of a cause, there’s sort of a cause and effect relationship there where there’s a high amount of something, must mean it’s there for a reason. And so, what we’re showing is that if the brain is properly fortified with Omega 3s, then if you get an injury, you’re better able to recover, as opposed to having a lack of Omega 3s, then it might take a bit more time to get back onto the playing field.

Sabrina Douglas  22:02 

Right, that makes sense. So, you mentioned supplemental forms of DHA and EPA. And I’m wondering if you can give some examples of the plant-based and maybe marine sources of these things as well.

David Ma  22:14 

Sure. So, plant-based Omega 3s, you would find abundantly in plant-based oils such as flaxseed oil, and canola and soybean oil. Whereas DHA and EPA, the longer-chain forms, are found in fish and seafood. Just to add further, some other rich sources of plant-based Omega 3s include walnuts and avocados. Whereas all sorts of seafood out there would be the primary source of EPA and DHA. And that’s where these types of fats get extracted from and then encapsulated in the pills that you find in supplemental form in the nutritional aisle.

Sabrina Douglas  22:56 

So, I’m thinking about parents out there who maybe have kids interested in science fields, and we’re wondering if you have any advice to pass on to these kids? Or maybe the parents of these kids who want to grow up to become a scientist?

David Ma  23:10 

Great, great question. I think it’s just to try and instil that curiosity into… introducing science early on, to show that it’s not hard, and to also show that there’s practical relationships between science and everyday life. You know, everyone’s got a smartphone, well, how do we make smartphones? What’s the underlying technology? You know, we all eat food, let’s figure out what’s in food that makes it healthy or unhealthy? So, I think providing that connection between the physical environment and the underlying science, I think is a useful way to encourage and instill that curiosity that might one day lead to an interest in the sciences.

Unknown Speaker  23:59 

I really love that. I’ll keep that in mind with my kids, for sure. My husband and I often joke that the worst fate is being an insect in a playground in front of a bunch of boys, because when I see them picking up the all those little creatures and, just like I get grossed out, but I think, oh, that’s probably not a good thing. They could maybe use some of Dr. Ma’s animal-care instructions. [laughter]

David Ma  24:26 

I think it’s similar to what we do in other areas, like sports, you know. If you want your children to be interested in sport, get involved with them in soccer, or golf, or baseball or whatever, you know, or running, and so it’s being active with our children and providing those opportunities.

Lisa Tang  24:49 

That’s great. I love that. So, we’ve been kind of ending with some of our guests who are part of the Guelph Family Health Study to talk about their best moment or favourite moment, your favourite memory with the Guelph Family Health Study. We were wondering if you had something to share with us?

David Ma  25:06 

Well, I would say that there are many fond memories. And, I would say that there isn’t one that stands out in my mind. But, I think it’s been just this ongoing feeling that we’re doing something really important, really exciting. We’re so fortunate to have wonderful families as part of the Guelph Family House Health Study, and also staff and trainees. I have to pinch myself every once in a while, because the last seven years have gone by so quickly. And, together, we have accomplished so much in a relatively short period of time. We’ve delved into so many different areas, we have such a greater understanding of what’s going on in terms of family health now than before. And so, yeah, there’s many great memories, but it’s just really this ongoing activity that I just have to pinch yourself to make sure it’s not really a dream.

Sabrina Douglas  26:08 

Thanks so much, David, for coming on the podcast and sharing your insight into your role with the GFHS and scientists at the University of Guelph. You covered a lot of ground from your journey to where you are today, the significance of the GFHS and animal-based research, and how to navigate nutrition and science news in the media. So, I’m sure our listeners will find what you had to share really helpful.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai