Milk proteins offer plenty to digest

Research lives: Dr André Brodkorb, Principal Research Officer at Teagasc Food Research Centre, Moorepark, Fermoy, Co Cork

Dr André Brodkorb, principal research officer at Teagasc Food Research Centre in Moorepark: ‘I figured if we are asking people to volunteer for this, I should do it too’

What is your main area of research?

In Ireland, a lot of food is exported, especially dairy, and for this it needs to be processed in some way. In the case of milk, that means we process it by heating, concentrating, separating or fermenting it; a practice done for hundreds of years. I am interested in what happens to the proteins in those foods from source through processing and storage all the way to what happens when we consume and digest those proteins.

Why look at proteins?

Proteins are the main structural building blocks in many foods. The chemical structure and shape of a protein often determines its function, so I want to see whether and how the structure and shape of specific proteins change as we process and digest foods.


What kinds of experiments do you do?

We have systems in the lab, so-called “in vitro” systems, that simulate digestion. These artificial systems let us look at what happens to milk, food or food components under the conditions they would encounter in the body. But we have also done experiments with real people to compare the results to the artificial systems.

And that included volunteering your own stomach?

Yes, we worked with colleagues at Mercy University Hospital, Cork, to see how the milk protein alpha-lactalbumin is digested in the stomachs of 11 people, including me. I consumed the proteins as a drink, and I also had an electrode placed down into my stomach to measure the acidity there. We took samples back out of my stomach through a nasogastric tube as the milk digested over the course of half an hour.

What was that like?

I was very excited to see the results, but the experiment itself was not a high point of my career. I figured if we are asking people to volunteer for this I should do it too, but I am squeamish so I was glad when it was over.

You also swallowed a camera?

During the “stomach” experiment I saw they had in the hospital a tiny pill-like wireless camera for patients to swallow and I thought we could use that. So in a separate experiment I swallowed it to get an “inside view” of how I digest milk proteins in my stomach and small intestine. Encouragingly, with both experiments we were able to confirm some of the observations we made in the simulated digestion in the lab.

What have you found?

We have seen that heating can affect the structure of dairy proteins and the time-frame of their digestion.

How did you come to Ireland?

I am from the eastern part of Germany, behind the Iron Curtain. In 1992, I came to Ireland. I was one of the first East Germans to go to Dublin City University on the EU Erasmus programme, I met my wife Geraldine there and the rest is history!

What do you do when you are not working in the lab – or swallowing cameras?

I have rediscovered running, and I also love white-water canoeing in the rivers of Cork and Kerry. Running keeps my head clear, white-water canoeing gives me the buzz.

What do you wish people knew about research?

As a researcher, you need to be a curious person and in general you work in unexplored areas. It is tempting to predict the results but in reality we don’t know the results before we start, we need to keep an open mind, we ask questions where no-one knows the answers. This process takes time, usually longer than anticipated.

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell is a contributor to The Irish Times who writes about health, science and innovation