Published March 16, 2019

Gut Sense

Research conducted by Liping Zhao holds the promise of an effective and natural treatment for Type 2 diabetes and an array of other diseases.

Zhao, who has a longstanding interest in traditional Chinese medicine and holds a doctorate in molecular plant pathology from Nanjing Agricultural University in Nanjing, China, directs the Center for Nutrition, Microbiome, and Health at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, which aggregates multidisciplinary efforts to explore how nutrition and microbiome work together to impact human health, and translate its findings into applications in both the clinical setting and everyday life.

Doctors have long known that diet plays an integral role in controlling diabetes, and Zhao’s work shows that eating more of the right kind of dietary fibers might rebalance the bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract that digest food and promote better overall health. He and his team pursue a “health-centric” approach to creating an effective and efficient gut ecosystem to better support all functions of the human body.

In type 2 diabetes, which afflicts more than 30 million Americans—10 percent of the population—cells become resistant to the action of insulin, a hormone produced in the pancreas that regulates glucose levels in the blood. In addition to being a primary source of energy for the cells that make up muscles and tissues, glucose is also the brain’s primary source of fuel. People with diabetes are at increased risk of serious complications, including vision loss, heart disease, stroke, and kidney failure.

Patients in a six-year study conducted by Zhao and his colleagues ate a high-fiber diet that included whole grains, traditional Chinese medicinal foods rich in dietary fibers, and prebiotics, which promote healthy gut bacteria. After 12 weeks, patients on the high-fiber diet had a significant reduction in a three-month average of blood glucose levels, their fasting blood glucose levels dropped, and they lost more weight. These findings have positive implications for the treatment of diabetes as well as for other conditions, including obesity and cancer.

“Our study lays the foundation and opens the possibility that fibers targeting this group of gut bacteria could eventually become a major part of your diet and your treatment,” says Zhao.

The chair was established by Dennis and Linda Fenton, in honor of Douglas and Linda Eveleigh. Dennis Fenton, who earned a doctorate from Rutgers in 1977, studied with Douglas Eveleigh, who was a professor in biochemistry and microbiology and the first holder of the chair.


In the Professor’s Own Words

What broad implications do your findings have for improving human health?

The healthy gut bacteria that can be promoted by dietary fibers work as the “foundation guild” for maintaining a healthy gut microbiota. Akin to tall trees in a forest, this guild of bacteria can produce a group of beneficial compounds called short-chain fatty acids. These acids can inhibit the growth of many pathogenic bacteria that may induce or aggravate chronic diseases, such as diabetes and cancers. Thus, our finding that targeting this foundation guild can improve human health is not limited to metabolic diseases.

What do you find most personally fulfilling about your work?

My research has the potential to help millions of people regain their health via proper nutrition targeting the gut bacteria. I am very proud of that.

What progress do you hope to make in the next five to ten years?

We hope we can develop personalized tests for identifying the foundation guild for each person and assessing their nutritional needs. We can also develop products based on these beneficial bacteria as a new type of drug to restore the foundation guild if it has been permanently lost in some patients.

Our long-term goal is to develop nutritional and pharmaceutical approaches to help people restore and maintain their foundation guild to maximize their health span.

Is the average American diet an impediment to good health?

Unfortunately, yes. One key problem is the lack of fermentable fibers in the American diet. Even if people try to increase their fiber intake, it’s still not effective. Many people increase their fiber intake by having more fruits and vegetables. Fibers in fruits and vegetables are mostly nonfermentable. This means that they cannot help bring the foundation guild back. We need to include more fibers from grains and other plant seeds to promote the foundation guild.


This story is part of Rutgers University Foundation’s Endowed Chairs Impact series. Supporting professorships and research helps spark innovation and creativity here in New Jersey and beyond.