Researcher uses nanotechnology to design food-based nutrient delivery systems for treatment and prevention of chronic diseases

The Luo lab research team. Left to right: PhD students Mingyong Zhou, Taoran Wang, Jingyi Xue (PhD student) and Qiaobin Hu; and Yangchao Luo.
The Luo lab research team. Left to right: PhD students Mingyong Zhou, Taoran Wang, Jingyi Xue (PhD student) and Qiaobin Hu; and Yangchao Luo.

Yangchao Luo’s passion is food. At home, Luo likes to cook Chinese food and tasty soups for his toddler daughter. In his lab at UConn, where he holds his primary appointment as assistant professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences and  joint appointments in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences and the Institute of Materials Sciences, he focuses on groundbreaking work in the emerging science of nanotechnology as applied to food. He wants to make healthy food healthier for individuals with special needs as well as for the rest of us. Luo became interested in functional foods as an undergraduate, and his interest grew as he worked toward his MS in food science and Ph.D. in nutrition and food science.

When foods are fortified or enriched, they become functional foods. But the biological efficacy of nutrients in functional foods is hardly realized due to limited bioavailability when the foods are ingested. Bioavailability is the proportion of a nutrient absorbed and therefore able to produce a particular effect. Many nutrients, such as vitamins and phytochemicals, are known to have a low bioavailability. The major goal of research in Luo’s laboratory is to use nanotechnology to improve the bioavailability of those nutrients and eventually help treat and prevent chronic diseases when they are put back into food. Luo uses food-grade biomaterials, including proteins, carbohydrates and lipids, to create non-toxic nanoscale vehicles that can carry nutrients and boost their absorption, making them more bioavailable.

“The most challenging part of my job is to try to discover the naturally occurring biomaterials within the foods and use those raw materials to prepare safe-to-eat nanoparticles. This requires application of many techniques to ensure that the preparation process does not compromise the food-grade status of developed nanoparticles, so that they can be used for nutrient fortification in real foods. The field of food nanotechnology was developed about ten years ago as an outgrowth of work in nanomedicine,” says Luo.

Dry powder of edible nanoparticles made from a combination of food-grade natural biomaterials, i.e. protein, carbohydrate and lipid.
Dry powder of edible nanoparticles made from a combination of food-grade natural biomaterials, i.e. protein, carbohydrate and lipid.

Currently no nano-foods are accepted by the USDA or FDA for human consumption as they are being evaluated for potential side effects. Luo received a grant from the USDA to develop lipid nanoparticles for astaxanthin, a carotenoid widely found in salmonids and crustacean aquaculture, and test their safety and effectiveness in mice in his lab. Results of the work will be available by the end of next year.

At a time when nearly half the population is either overweight or obese, Luo and the students in his lab focus on the benefits of nanoformulations in treating diseases such as fatty liver. Through targeted nutrient delivery systems, food-grade nanomaterials can go directly to the tissues that need help from certain nutrients. Astaxanthin has been proven to be protective against liver diseases, but due to its poor bioavailability it is hard to realize its health benefits at a dosage suitable for daily consumption. By encapsulating astaxanthin into specially designed food-grade nanoparticules, Luo hopes to deliver it directly to the liver to achieve its maximal health benefits for fatty liver.

Although Luo speaks in the deliberate tones of a scientist, it is clear that his belief that food nanotechnology will revolutionize the functional food industry inspires his efforts and the work of four Ph.D. students and a half dozen undergraduates in his lab. They are dedicated to exploring the many applications that food-grade nanoparticles will have in creating bigger health benefits of functional foods to prevent diseases.

From his office in the Advanced Technology Laboratory, Yangchao Luo works on the cutting edge of new discoveries that will change the way food and health interact. His work is innovative but he also takes pleasure in teaching and advising as well as training students in the hands-on basics of lab work that underlies scientific discovery. He is a committed scientist who also values the a good bowl of homemade soup.

By Nancy P. Weiss and Yangchao Luo