Wim Saris Wim Saris Bart van Overbeeke

“I witnessed the ‘-omics’ revolution in nutrition research”

In Body
Written by  Femke Kools Wednesday, 04 June 2014 09:06
In the early 1990s Wim Saris, professor of Human Nutrition at Maastricht University, considered taking a different research direction. “At the time we had only a basic understanding of why a diet might work for one person but not another, and we had trouble getting much further than that.” But he saw the light at a 1994 conference in Colorado (USA), where molecular biologists presented the next big thing in genomics research: nutrigenomics. “It was spectacular; perhaps the biggest change of the past three decades.” Saris will deliver his farewell lecture, ‘Something to chew on’, on 6 June. 
After completing his PhD in 1982, Saris relocated to Maastricht and was appointed professor just five years later. “I was 37 years old, then the youngest professor in the Netherlands. The department had about 30 employees in those days; now we have about 125. We’ve been very active over the years. I’ve always tried to give my staff a lot of freedom and personal responsibility, not just when things are going well but also in the face of problems. They have to find their own way.”


Saris has supervised 60 PhD candidates in total, with a few still on the go. He is also joint coordinator of two major European studies, Diogenes and Food4Me, with a number of publications stemming from these projects still in the pipeline. Diogenes, which explores the influence of nutrition and genes on weight loss and gain, officially came to an end in 2011. “But I still wonder what the best dietary advice is, because it can vary from person to person. That’s what we’re studying in Food4Me: whether personal dietary advice based on an individual’s genetic makeup will make them more likely to change their eating patterns.”

Diogenes yielded several terabytes of data, from gene expression in the participants to behavioural survey results. “These data are now being analysed in a new way, by means of bioinformatics. Computer programs, in other words. This brings to light interesting information, such as the fact that nutrition actually has a negligible effect on the body compared to drugs. I expect both Diogenes and Food4Me to result in a number of interesting publications in the coming years.”

Black box

Nutrigenomics researchers study the effects of nutrition and ingredients on our genes. This has given Saris and his colleagues an ever greater understanding of how the body works. “You could compare this to fMRI scanners, which at last allow brain researchers to examine that black box, the brain, more closely. The insights we’ve gained into the metabolic process shed light on what a molecule or a food ingredient does to the body over the long term.” His introduction to nutrigenomics in the US in 1994 is still fresh in his mind: “You just felt that a whole lot was about to change and the real discoveries were still coming. We invested immediately in technology to catch up on this ‘-omics’ development, and launched all sorts of genomics projects in collaboration with other Dutch institutes. As a result, by early 2000 the Netherlands was the European leader in this field. It was a rapid transformation that I’m glad I was able to witness.”

Academia and industry

Saris is also happy he was able to work with one foot in academia, as a professor in Maastricht, and the other foot in industry, as a corporate scientist at DSM Food Specialties since 2005. “I’ve always been more interested in concrete application than pure, dry theory. It sounds a bit high-flown, but I do believe our work should mean something for humanity.”

He had an advisory role at DSM: what are the opportunities for the company in the field of nutrition? At the same time, the job allowed him to see what was going on in industry and report back to academia (respecting confidentiality, of course). “Some colleagues felt I’d abandoned science; that I was ‘in league with the enemy’. Obviously, you have to keep science and industry separate. But I’ve never had any issues with that. And anyway, I question the notion that science is objective. Scientists are people too, and they subjectively select the angles and the data they find interesting or promising. As long as everything is done transparently and in line with the rules of the academic game, there’s no problem.”


Saris is convinced that his ties with industry were good for both UM and NUTRIM, the institute he co-founded in 1992 and led until 2005. For the last four years he has also been programme director of the Top Institute for Food and Nutrition, a public/private institute in the area of food and nutrition. Last year, it conducted a bibliometric analysis of the 5000 most cited scientific publications in nutrition from 2008 to 2012, and ranked the institutions involved. “US institutions occupied the first five places in the ranking, starting with Harvard. But in sixth place was NUTRIM. This is the nicest parting gift I could have received. And it’s the result of the wise decision taken when Maastricht University was founded to organise research in the medical faculty thematically. Nutrition was one of those themes. As a small university, you have to focus on specialisation and collaboration if you want to really achieve something, first within the university and then across the Netherlands. That’s why I’ve always been committed to our collaboration with colleagues in Wageningen.”

God in France

The next step, which he is pleased to see happening more and more, is collaboration within Europe in the area of nutrition research. In the aftermath of mad cow disease, it emerged that more than half of the research into its causes and effects had been duplicated in Europe. Better coordination of these efforts would have saved a great deal of research funding. This, Saris believes, is why the Joint Programme Initiatives (JPI) of the European Union are so important.

“Over the last five years I helped to launch and coordinate the JPI Healthy Diet for a Healthy Life. I expect a lot from it, in spite of the present anti-Europe sentiment. We have to make agreements between countries: this is what the Netherlands is doing, that’s what Germany is doing. If all European countries continue to work individually, we won’t be able to compete with countries like China and India.” He confesses to having ‘some concern’ about these emerging economies. “There are more than two billion brains walking around in China and India. With our 17 million, we can’t get anywhere near that. If we want secure employment prospects for the future, countries in Europe need to work together.” This is a message he intends to hammer home in his farewell lecture.

Stopping work is clearly not on the cards, but Saris does plan to spend more time on old hobbies. “I used to love bees, so I’m going to get back into that. I also enjoyed making my own wine and painting oil landscapes. I’m looking forward to having time for things like that again.” His whiteboard sports the proverb: ‘Would God have to work longer in France too?’ In Saris’s case, it seems to be less a matter of having to and more of wanting to.

Professor Wim Saris was appointed Professor of Human Nutrition at the Medical and Health Science faculty of Maastricht University in 1988. From 1992 till 2005 he was the scientific director of the Nutrition and Toxicology Research Institute, NUTRIM. In 2005 he joined the DSM Company in Delft as a part-time corporate scientist in Human Nutrition. Wim Saris wil deliver his Valedictory lecture ‘Something to chew on’ on Friday June 6th 2014, 16.00 hours.

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