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Something beautiful is growing in Venlo!

june 21, 2018

With the arrival of the Maastricht University research labs late May, Brightlands Campus Greenport Venlo now also has a full-fledged academic community on site. The Center for Healthy Eating and Food (HEFI) and the Food Claims Center Venlo (FCCV) now have room for education and research. This is very enticing, according to Aalt Bast, Dean of the University College Venlo and professor of Toxicology. “This is the right place for us now. This gives UM the opportunity to climb down from its ivory tower.”

Eating with all your senses

The unique thing about the new research labs is that they will facilitate integrated research. There are three dedicated labs which focus on everything involving food and nutrition. “This starts in our heads,” Aalt says, “with the psychology of eating. What kind of influence does experiencing smells, light or sound have on food? Do portion sizes matter, or the setting? How does medication affect the taste experience? We built a special lab to study all of this. It has its own entrance and its own air treatment system. After all, you wouldn’t want the enticing cooking smells from Kokkerelli to affect your research.”

Aalt Bast, Dean University College Venlo and professor Toxicology

In vivo study

In addition to the psychology lab there are also labs for in vivo and in vitro studies. For the in vivo research, clinical units with beds have been built where researchers can take blood, bile or saliva samples from healthy volunteers to study the decomposition of substances and the biological effects. This helps them find out what food does inside our bodies and to measure the effect of certain substances on our bodies. “We have already received permission from the medical ethics committee for the first research projects,” Aalt says. “The first PhD students have already started their research.”

Unique gastrointestinal simulation

The UM’s in vitro lab is unique. There are two simulation models available that were originally developed by TNO: TIM I and TIM II. TIM stands for TNO Intestinal Model. TIM I simulates the stomach and small intestine, and TIM II the large intestine or colon. The equipment consists of double-walled tubes that mimic the peristaltic movements of the intestines. Much like in the gastrointestinal tract, the tubes contain a variety of valves. “We can actually simulate the biology of humans and animals here in an in vivo situation,” Aalt explains. “We don’t even have to use test subjects or animals to achieve this, making this form of research less invasive and less expensive. We can closely follow digestion, the decomposition of substances. We can also see the effects certain substances have on the intestinal system, which bacteria disappear or appear, and study the composition of the intestinal flora. Since we know the DNA of bacteria, we can monitor how the composition of bacteria changes.”

Food as medicine

There is a lot of interest in the in vitro lab from the food and pharmaceutical industries. According to Aalt, “It is amazing how much influence our intestines have over the rest of our body. We are learning more and more about these effects. There is one study that shows that the metabolites that form in our intestines from food have an effect on our brain. Which substances can be responsible for causing depression, or the development of autism? Which waste products promote infection and thus chronic conditions? Which substances have a favorable effect on our blood pressure? Once you know the answers to these questions, you can use food to help prevent health problems.”

Interaction

Dare to share; this concept is part and parcel of science. Aalt says, “As a scientist, you publish; you share your knowledge. At the Brightlands Campus Greenport Venlo, we can also share our infrastructure. We have companies as our neighbors here at the campus and this automatically leads to interaction. You run into each other, strike up a conversation. We give presentations during meetings. This is how ideas and research questions come about. We are very close to the market here which makes it a very interesting place for students. They see the kinds of questions that people involved in the practical aspects are interested in and can make a concrete contribution to these. This is quite different from a normal lab assignment.”

Something beautiful is growing in Venlo

Even though University College Venlo is still a young institution, the bachelor degree program ranks high. It is even considered the very best bachelor degree program in the Netherlands. “Students gave our facilities a slightly lower score,” Aalt admits, “but with the new labs, the rankings are certain to improve. Something is happening in Venlo. Our staff is growing, and Zuyd University of Applied Sciences is going to work with us on flavor studies. We have a professor from the HAS who teaches here and brings his own students to our campus. These are all very promising developments. Something beautiful is growing here, and the excitement of it all gives me energy!”

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