Speech Title: Hidden Hunger: Global Challenges and Novel Solutions
After graduating from the University of Liverpool with a PhD in trace mineral metabolism, Nicola spent four years as a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of California, Berkeley where she conducted research examining the homeostatic response to dietary zinc depletion, returning to the University of Liverpool to continue this work until she joined UCLan in 2000. Her primary research interest is trace mineral metabolism, with a particular focus micronutrient deficiency, known as “hidden hunger”. From 2018 to 2021, she was seconded to the role Challenge Leader for Food Systems portfolio of the Global Challenges Research Fund at UKRI, where she provided strategic oversight for new funding calls and future impact of the funding programme.
Nicola is also the research director and a trustee for the Abaseen Foundation, a Lancashire based charity that received the Queens Award (MBE) for Voluntary Service in 2017. The Abaseen Foundation is working alongside community members in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in north west Pakistan, to improve education and health care provision. She has been collaborating with researchers in Pakistan for over 15 years, conducting research aimed at tackling malnutrition in marginalised communities. She is currently the Principal Investigator for research in Pakistan to investigate novel biomarkers of zinc status, and the potential for wheat biofortification to alleviate zinc deficiency (BIZIFED study). Nicola is a Fellow of the Association for Nutrition and a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and is committed to research that embraces equitable partnerships.
Hidden hunger affects over two billion people globally and is defined as a deficiency of essential micronutrients which may be present with or without a deficit in total energy intake. It occurs when the diet consumed does not provide sufficient quantities of micronutrients to meet physiological needs, for example a diet that is comprised primarily of low nutrient density staples or highly processed foods. The clinical presentation may not always be obvious, but the underlying impact of micronutrient deficiencies is profound, affecting growth as well as physical and cognitive development in children, and impaired immune function in adults, leading to increased morbidity and susceptibility to infection. Hidden hunger clearly has a health and economic impact at the individual level, but also at the community, regional and national level, contributing to reduced national economic productivity. The most prevalent micronutrient deficiencies include iron, zinc, and Iodine. Iron and iodine are both “type 1” nutrients, meaning that a deficiency results in specific, measurable biochemical and metabolic consequences. As such, the diagnostic criteria for iron deficiency are well defined, and provide a robust indicator of an individual’s iron status. Similarly, for iodine the clinical presentation of overt deficiency, known as goitre, is well recognised and can be followed up with simple tests to confirm diagnosis. In contrast, zinc is a type 2 nutrient, meaning that the consequences of deficiency are general and non-specific, making diagnosis challenging. This presentation will outline some of the novel techniques being explored for the identification of zinc deficiency, and the strategies that can be employed to address Hidden Hunger.