Natalie Paterson headshotMy name is Natalie Paterson, and I am a senior biochemist and nutrition minor on track to complete the 4 + 1 B.S. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology/M.S. Food Science integrated degree program by May 2021. Specifically, the integrated program is in direct alignment with my aspiration to use food as medicine. Thus far, pursuing my degree in biochemistry has opened my eyes to the intricate chemical mechanisms of metabolism, as well as the evolution of the macromolecules that direct our lives internally. Subsequently, food science will now open my eyes to the sophistication and complexity of the processes that our food goes through before it reaches the plate.

This Summer 2019, I was a proud recipient of both the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) and the Undergraduate Scholarly/Creative Grant. SURF is an intensive 8-week program run by the Center for Undergraduate Excellence (CUE), which gives students the opportunity to engage in research with a full-time faculty member. Click here to read more about my SURF experience. On the other hand, the Undergraduate Scholarly/Creative Grants are given to support any faculty-mentored scholarly or creative projects that are conducted by students.

Through these programs, I began my work with my mentor Dr. John Miklavcic, assistant professor of Nutritional Pharmacology. Our research focuses in on the field of pediatric Inflammatory inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). This intestinal disease consists of Ulcerative Colitis and Crohn’s disease. Both conditions are characterized by an exacerbated immune response that results in chronic inflammation in the gut and thus impeded quality of life.

IBD is regularly treated with immunomodulators. These drugs help to suppress the immune response which decreases the disease symptoms and helps to improve patients’ quality of life. However, 20% of the population have a specific genetic variant that inhibits them from effectively metabolizing such drugs, resulting in toxicity. Therefore, along with Dr. Kenneth Grant, MD, Head of Pediatric Gastroenterology, at Children’s Hospital of Orange County we are investigating how the intake of folic acid (an essential nutrient) can serve to prevent immunosuppressant-induced toxicity in children with IBD and therefore increase remission rates.

Natalie presenting her research with Melissa, the head ICN coordinator for Dr. Kenneth Grant, MD, Head of Pediatric Gastroenterology, at Children’s Hospital of Orange County (CHOC).

To investigate our research questions, we accessed data from the global network Improve Care Now (ICN). ICN is a vast network containing anonymized data from thousands of patients in over 100 clinics worldwide. As such, it contains all the data required to answer our research questions. Significantly, I had the pleasure and privilege of attending the Fall ICN Community Conference that took place in Chicago, Illinois this September 19-21, 2019.

Effectively, these in-person conferences are vital as they serve as epicenters for change. As IBD is a chronic illness, there is no cure, and hence the end goal in any treatment protocol is always remission. Therefore, these conferences provide all members the opportunity to catalyze the renewal of the network’s commitment to innovating research, care, and treatment therapies for IBD children.

Essentially, at the conference I learned that the fastest way to achieve remission for all patients is through engagement, open communication, and co-production on all levels within the healthcare community. Notably, ICN creates a Quality Improvement (Q.I.) framework within the network in order to achieve just that. Q.I. is a formal system to approach the analysis of each individual care facility regarding their practice protocols, outcomes, and strategies for continual improvement.

Through working with the database and networking at the conference, we have identified the necessary data parameters needed to begin answering our target research question regarding the utilization of folic acid to reduce drug-induced toxicity and increase remission rates. In addition, we have also been able to identify specific data parameters that could be expanded upon and better quantified in order to produce more sound data. Thus, going forward, our research findings will work to improve care at the individual and the community level by encouraging continuous high standards of Q.I. that translates to high-quality patient care and health outcomes.

All in all, travelling to Chicago for the ICN community conference served as a major turning point in my understanding of how vital networks such as ICN are in healthcare today. It showed me just how powerful combining the complementary expertise of physicians, nurses, dieticians, psychologists, researchers, parents, patients and beyond can work to create a perfect synergy of knowledge that is essential in order to achieve the common goal of remission for all. Ultimately, I am excited to stay with the ICN network and to continue combing my background in biochemistry with the new knowledge that I learn through food science to continue to connect the potency of functional foods (such as folic acid) with that of modern technology (such as the drug azathioprine) to create a harmony that personalizes medicine and care practices and fosters a sustainable disease management overall.