KU researcher: Diet key in battling disease

Val Smith, a KU professor in ecology and evolutionary biology, uses a sterile hood in his lab to transfer bacterial growth media for use in his research Wednesday. Smith has been studying how nutrition plays a role in controlling the course of a disease.

For one Kansas University professor, the key to defeating infectious diseases may be something as simple as diet.

No, not chicken soup for the malaria-ridden soul. But perhaps less iron for the man with tuberculosis. Or maybe a diet with reduced carbohydrates for a woman suffering from salmonella poisoning.

“I suspect there must be thousands of nutrients out there that show a role in health, particularly when it comes to infectious diseases,” said Val Smith, a professor in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology.

Smith has published several papers documenting results that changing the balance of nutrients, in the proper settings, can actually control diseases.

Recently, he published a paper that showed, in mice at least, that salmonella will be less deadly if it has access to few carbohydrates. He also shows that a version of malaria functions less effectively if exposed to little protein.

Essentially, Smith said, the body and the disease-containing microbes are competing for the same nutrients to survive. He compares the idea to a car. Without tires, a car won’t go. Without nutrients, a microbe won’t grow.

“If done in a hospital setting, putting the body in a state where it is getting the absolute minimum of nutrients, people could get better much more quickly,” Smith said.

The idea is grounded in a personal experience for Smith. More than a decade ago, when in a hospital for surgery on a thyroid condition, he realized that his body was merely a vessel through which fluid travels.

That gave him the idea that if he controlled what nutrients entered his body, as he does in algae experiments all the time, he might be able to directly influence his own health. Almost before he had recovered from his surgery, he began to pore over the research already available.

He said he quickly found hints that he was heading down the right path.

“These experiments suggested profound effects on the outcome and severity of diseases,” Smith said. “This isn’t one of those miracle cures either. This has its grounding in basic principles of science.”

Eugene Weinberg, a professor emeritus of microbiology at Indiana University, has been impressed by Smith’s work.

“It’s a concept that’s tremendous,” he said. “He’s developed this worldwide and is really a leader in the field.”

Weinberg said he’s been doing similar research for more than 50 years, but he focused almost solely on iron.

“Microbes cannot carry enough iron into the body with them to reproduce to cause illness,” he explained. “So then you get competition for scarce resources. If the body successfully prevents that microbe from having iron, then the disease won’t be successful.”

Weinberg said that Smith has organized international conferences where other scientists pursuing similar ideas have come together to compare notes on their progress.

“We always need someone to look at the forest and make examples out of the trees,” Weinberg said. “He’s great at looking at the big picture. He does his own work, and he also pulls things together.”

Another area of research where Smith hopes nutrients could play a major role is the reproduction of cells in HIV. Though he hasn’t developed conclusions, he’s interested in what sort of way T-cell reproduction could be affected by nutrient levels.

Smith isn’t content just to study how nutrients can affect diseases in humans. He’s also looking at exploring how some of the same principles could be applied to insect control, both for humans and for agriculture.

He’s working with researchers at Washington University in St. Louis and Michigan State University to determine how nutrient levels and biological spores could work together to eliminate mosquito-growing pools of water, among other dens for disease.

He hopes to get a $1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to continue that work.