Take 10 with... Ben Albert

Paediatric endocrinologist and senior research fellow, Dr Ben Albert explains his research into supplements that could protect against obesity.

Dr Ben Albert, Liggins Institute

1. Describe your research topic to us in 10 words or less.

I’m interested in how weight affects our health and ways to prevent those problems.

2. Now describe it in everyday terms!

We know that around the world becoming overweight has become really, really common, and that influences our health, the way our body works, and our risk of disease - particularly as we get older. What we're not so good at is finding ways to prevent this, by helping people to lose weight or preventing them from developing health problems if they are overweight. A big part of my research has been looking at things we might be able to do in pregnancy that could set children up so they’re less to develop health problems throughout the lifetime. I’ve been investigating whether high quality fish oil in taken in pregnancy can improve mum's health, improve the environment the baby is growing in, and set the child up for a healthier path.

3. What are some of the day-to-day research activities you carry out?

I’ve been part of quite a wide range of studies. Part of it involves contacting women and their babies who are part of our studies and bringing them into the Institute so that we can assess them, talk to them about how things are going and monitor their progress. I've also been involved in studies where we take samples, for example blood samples, and analyse them in the lab to see what’s happening on a more detailed level.

4. What do you enjoy most about your research?

There’s two things I really enjoy. One is interacting with the people who take part in our studies. I've been very lucky to meet women in early pregnancy, follow them through it, and then get to meet them with their babies afterwards. The other thing I really like is working in hospitals as a paediatric endocrinologist, where we use scientific knowledge to help people with their health. But there are lots and lots of questions that we don't have any answers to yet, and being a researcher means I can ask those questions and try to find some of the answers.

5. Tell us something that has surprised or amused you in the course of your research.

In research we think of good questions and we design studies to find the answers to those questions, but frequently the answers have not been what I thought they would be. For example, earlier on in my career, we ran a clinical trial to look at the effects of krill oil on metabolism, which we thought would improve metabolism, but it had the opposite effect. It’s really important that we know that – that krill oil doesn’t make your metabolism better – but it was the opposite result to what I was expecting to find.

6. How have you approached any challenges you’ve faced in your research?

Research constantly raises challenges because you're asking questions that haven't been asked before, so you’re not always sure what's going to get in the way. How you approach the challenges depends on what the problem is. Looking at what's already known is really important, as well as talking to other people who might have better insights than you. Sometimes these are the people I work with, and sometimes they're experts around the world.

7. What questions have emerged as a result?

Some of my research looked at the quality of fish oils that were available on the market and showed that a lot of them were already starting to go off, so one of the important questions that we raised early on was, are these safe and okay to take? It’s something we’re still trying to answer.
Our animal studies have shown that really fresh and high quality fish oil taken in pregnancy has long-term health benefits for the offspring. This raises the question: could a healthy oil (a very fresh fish oil that hasn’t gone off) taken by pregnant woman have long-term benefits for children as well? We've been working on a clinical trial to find out, we're going to know the answer very soon.

8. What impact is your research having or what impact do you hope it will have?

I hope that we are going to find that fish oil taken during pregnancy can have long-term benefits for children. If we’re able to do this, it could become a routine supplement for women to take in pregnancy. I think this would change the way we think about supplements in pregnancy, and it has huge potential to help children around the world.

9. If you collaborate across the University, or outside the University, who do you work with and how does it benefit your research?

We have one collaboration with a lipid analysis expert in Australia who’s helped us accurately measure the different types of fats and oils in our study participants’ blood. This is a very specialised area that is very easy to do poorly. Bringing in an expert like this has really strengthened my research and how sure we can be about the results that we produce.

10. What one piece of advice would you give your younger, less experienced research self?

When you find results that people don't like, some of those people will respond negatively. That can be a bit tough, but it always blows over.