Are malnourished children more likely to suffer from chronic diseases of lifestyle as adults in South Africa (SA)? PhD researcher and South African dietitian Ntuthuko Khanyile is investigating exactly that in this unusual PhD split across two countries. Switching between his research study patients in SA local community clinics and molecular genomics work in London Met Uni's laboratories, we caught up with Ntuthuko on one of his Uni lab visits.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I was born in Eshowe (a small rural town) but mainly grew up in Durban, a big, mostly urban town in South Africa (SA). I moved to Durban when I was about 11 years old to live with my older sister when my mother passed away. I never really knew our father. In addition to my older sister who raised me, I have two younger sisters and one younger brother.
I’m a registered dietitian by profession and have practised as a dietitian since 2014 but I have always had an interest in research, and I studied for my MSc through research work in dietetics between 2015 and 2017. After finishing my MSc, I had always known that I would come back to academia to pursue a PhD – but I didn’t want to do pure dietetics. Then this PhD opportunity came along at London Met which combines dietetics with molecular genomics and I was very excited.
What brought you to London Met in particular?
It has a real community-like feel here – I felt that I would not struggle too much to fit in, which is important to me. The diversity and the work the University has done in this area impressed me.
The whole University’s done a lot over the past couple of years to invest in research. As a junior researcher, I felt like the University was going to offer me a lot in terms of support for my research, and that is important since research is often a lonely journey. I know that research does not often grab the headlines, but to me it is very important – when you practice in-patient care, you realise that there is so much that still needs to be studied when it comes to the treatment, management and prevention of certain conditions.
In addition, communities such as those where I come from are often less researched in certain areas, limiting our abilities to get access to newer treatments, diagnoses, etc. London Met offered me and my community the chance to be involved in this new field, linking nutrition with molecular genetics using cutting-edge methods, equipment etc. I am truly grateful to be involved in a project such as this.
Tell us more about your research at London Met.
In South Africa, about 30% of children under five years old suffer from malnutrition – they don’t get enough and/or the right nutrients to help them grow healthily. When you go over to the adult population however, chronic diseases are on the increase. Statistics SA has recently shown that diabetes (a chronic lifestyle disease) is the number two cause of natural death population among SA adults. Diabetes is already the number one natural cause of death among SA women and up to 70% of SA women are said to be either overweight or obese.
We are looking at whether childhood malnutrition, particularly chronic childhood malnutrition, predisposes you to chronic diseases of lifestyle as an adult, through a combination of nutrition and molecular genomics. It is often expensive and rare to study people throughout their lifetime. This is particularly true for developing countries. We are trying to use a combination of molecular genomics through telomere lengths and nutrition to predict whether children who suffer from malnutrition are at a higher risk of chronic lifestyle diseases.
In people who suffer from chronic diseases of lifestyle such as diabetes, telomeres (distinctive, repetitive DNA structures) have been found to be shorter. We will measure diets to see which diets expose children to malnutrition and then measure telomeres (TL) in malnourished children to see if childhood malnutrition is linked to TL. We also will compare children from rural and urban areas to see the environmental impact, and then finally investigate the impact of government programs on malnutrition and telomeres.
If there is a relationship between childhood undernutrition and telomere lengths, then this adds to the existing evidence of childhood malnutrition resulting in a higher risk of adult-onset non-communicable diseases. I can confidently say that we are the only project that is doing this research in my country, especially in the KwaZulu-Natal region, which is where our research data collection is taking place. The health profile is quite unique in this part of South Africa – so we have put in a lot of time shaping and implementing this.
So, in South Africa, I’m visiting local clinics/community health centres to do physical exams (weighing and screenings and collecting other patient data) on these children, and then we come to London to analyse it in London Met’s laboratories. We’re taking that data and linking it with our molecular laboratory work.
I have two research supervisors – one is Una Fairbrother, who's in molecular genomics, which is one side of my research, and the second one is Shawn McLaren, who's from a dietetics/nutrition background.
What we’re aiming to do is report on the findings to the scientific community to encourage research in this area. We are also hoping to use the findings of this research to advise the SA government on interventions and programs, and develop a diet tool that is optimised for malnutrition prevention. We also aim to develop training for the SA Department of Health and educational materials that can be used to help communities through the SA Department of Health. As you can imagine, in developing countries such as SA, the health budget is not that big. It is all about allocating resources – hopefully helping them target their spending in the most efficient way. That’s what I’m hoping will be the impact of our research.
What is your biggest passion in life and where did that passion come from?
I am a person that likes to make a positive impact – the highest of my priorities is that I want to be able to say that I made a difference.
What drives you?
Seeing change, making an impact.
What’s the proudest moment in your life?
Usually I’m not so introspective, but probably my proudest moment was getting the PhD scholarship. It is exposing me to different cultures, I’m getting to do what I love with the support of people who are generally interested in what I do and hopefully I get to look at this as the turning point towards a full-time career in academia.
Tell us a little bit about your interests outside of uni and why they are important to you.
Outside uni, before we got this busy, I liked to like to follow football. The only reason I know England so well is because I know it by all the football towns! Ever since I was young, I’ve watched the premiership. Every day I walk past the Emirate’s stadium gates, I see the pictures of the players outside the stadium, I try to keep my cool, but it feels unreal!
What’s your favourite spot in London Met?
The lab of course! I just enjoy the facilities there.
What’s next in your career?
To be honest, I’ve always wanted to go into research, so I would love to join academia full time, in the right environment – that’s really important to me.
Do you have any advice for anyone else considering studying at London Met?
Most importantly, if you’re considering it, definitely go for it – London Met's a lovely place. The Uni has a sense of community – it is really welcoming and VERY diverse, like London the city. The facilities are world-class in terms of what we have and what is needed to get the best out of us. One thing that has struck me is how supportive the senior personnel are, they really want you to do well, especially in human sciences which is my school, and I am sure it is probably the same in other schools as well. I do not think you’ll regret going to London Met.
"In developing countries, the health budget is not that big. It’s all about allocating resources – hopefully helping them target their spending in the most efficient way. That’s what I’m hoping will be the impact with our research."