21 May 2015

We Are What We Eat - What Hair Can Tell Us

From Our Changing World, 9:46 pm on 21 May 2015

By Alison Ballance

We’re trying to improve nutrition in pregnancy. Because if we can get a baby thriving in the womb, those babies thrive in childhood and in adulthood. And a key component to the optimal environment for the baby inside the womb is the mother’s diet and nutrition.
Scientist and obstetrician Philip Baker, Gravida and University of Auckland

Biomarkers or metabolites in hair may provide an innovative way of measuring someone's diet.Photo of hair

Biomarkers or metabolites in hair may provide an innovative way of measuring someone's diet. Photo: RNZ / Alison Ballance

Gravida researchers are hoping to find a pioneering new use for the hair on our heads. By identifying diet ‘biomarkers’ in hair and blood samples from 1200 pregnant Singaporean women, they hope that it will allow them to find out which women are likely to suffer pregnancy complications.

Traditionally, researchers have studied diet by getting people to keep food diaries. And while blood and urine samples give an insight into food intake over the previous day or two the University of Auckland researchers are confident that hair contains a metabolic record of what someone has eaten over the previous months.

“Hair grows about one centimetre per month,” says post-doctoral researcher Karolina Sulek, from the Liggins Institute at the University of Auckland. “And so we’ll be able to see [back to] what happened before pregnancy, then in first and second trimester etcetera.”

Karolina makes the analogy that the metabolic record of a single strand of hair is like the record kept by growth rings in trees – the information laid down in each ‘ring’ relates to the environmental conditions at the time.

The hair samples from 1200 Singaporean women who took part in the GUSTO study are in the photo album held by researcher Ting-Li Han, while Karolina Sulek holds a sample that has been liquified prior to being analysed.

The hair samples from 1200 Singaporean women who took part in the GUSTO study are in the photo album held by researcher Ting-Li Han, while Karolina Sulek holds a sample that has been liquified prior to being analysed. Photo: RNZ / Alison Ballance

The Gravida team is leading the way in using hair in metabolomics research, although they have actually had difficulty finding existing cohort studies that have collected hair.

They have just received hair samples from 1200 women who took part in the GUSTO study – Growing Up in Singapore Towards Healthy Outcomes, but have already trialled the technique.

“We’ve studied the GUSTO cohort,” says scientist obstetrician Philip Baker. “We’ve now collected and studied a cohort in China, and in both cases we can get a very accurate handle on particular pregnancy complications by studying hair.”

Pregnancy complications include maternal diabetes, pre-eclampsia and the failure of a baby to thrive, and they affect millions of babies and mothers each year. But Philip is hopeful that a personalised diet plan could help alleviate many complications.

“It’s very simplistic to think that one diet is good for everybody or one diet is bad for everybody, “ says Philip. “The real value of this project is that it is trying to get a handle on optimizing the diet and nutrition for a particular pregnant women. In the long run what we’d like to do is profile a woman, either before she gets pregnant or in the early stages of her pregnancy, look at her environment particularly her diet, and look at the way her body is responding to that – her metabolic profile. It’s trying to move to much more tailored and individualized advice

The hair samples are analysed in a GCMS (gas chromatography mass spectrometry) machine. The resulting graph shows individual metabolites or biomarkers appearing over time - the height of the peak relates to the amount that is present.

The hair samples are analysed in a GCMS (gas chromatography mass spectrometry) machine. The resulting graph shows individual metabolites or biomarkers appearing over time - the height of the peak relates to the amount that is present. Photo: RNZ / Alison Ballance

Philip says one of the real values in using hair is that the hair doesn’t need to be stored in a fridge or freezer, and it doesn’t need to be processed in any way, so it’s a technique that could be easily used in less developed countries.

Philip Baker says that the hair metabolome is an exciting area – “just how much promise it holds, if we’re being entirely candid we don’t yet know, but the first signs are very encouraging.”

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