PhD fellow Kirsten van der Beek: “TiFN’s multidisciplinary approach is inspiring”

11 October 2017 - Learning and succeeding in a multidisciplinary research setting was Kirsten van der Beek’s motivation to become a ‘TiFN PhD’. She defended her thesis on the metabolic effects of short-chain fatty acids in the large intestine on October 4, 2017 at Maastricht University.  

“I started at TiFN with a limited research education”, says Van der Beek, who got her MSc degree in medicine before starting her PhD. “Once there I learned how to really conduct and evaluate research and translate results into practice. We worked, for example, with dietary fibres, such as inulin and galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS), which are found in common food products.”

Van der Beek investigated the effects of short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) – produced from dietary fibres by, amongst others, bifidobacteria – on human energy metabolism. “Previously only studied in animals, our team was one of the first to investigate them in depth in humans.”

When introduced distally in the large intestine, SCFAs increased fat oxidation within a few hours; when introduced into the proximal part of the large intestine SCFAs did not have any effect. “It appears that manufacturers developing products to impact energy metabolism should focus on dietary fibres that ferment in the distal part of the intestine”, she explains. The exact fibres are still unknown. However, “Choosing fibres with complex structures – or making them more complex for fermentation – could be a promising way forward.”

From animal to human
Van der Beek’s major research challenge was translating animal experiments to human-intervention studies. “You cannot just access a part of a volunteer’s liver or intestine”, she says. “Fortunately I was placed in a team with hands-on, experienced colleagues who helped me find practical solutions.” For example, during large abdominal surgeries, so Van der Beek learnt, blood samples can be taken from normally inaccessible veins, such as the hepatic portal vein. “This allowed for measuring the release and uptake of SCFAs by the intestine and liver, respectively.”

The PhD fellow found it very inspiring to work in a team with so many disciplines – from dieticians and gastrointestinal specialists to molecular biologists and experts in animal studies. “My colleagues offered many new perspectives, triggering new ideas for research.”

Eighteen months ago, Van der Beek began working as a gastroenterology resident at the VieCuri Medical Centre in Venlo (the Netherlands). “When my training to become a gastroenterologist is completed, I would like to combine my clinical work with research”, she says. “Thanks to TiFN I’ve really got a taste for it.”