Team AsiaFitnessToday.com speaks with medical lab scientist and founder of R3Gen Dr. Desmond Menon based in Perth, Western Australia. Dr. Menon consults on medical and sports medicine projects, but what’s most interesting was his early days as a researcher, where he was his own experiment. Growing up as a kid with asthma, Dr. Menon looked to science to get himself fit and healthy after a string of allergic reactions to prescribed medications. Today, he supports a number of University-based sports medicine projects, one of which looks at the effects of the menstrual cycle on the performance of elite female cyclists.
AsiaFitnessToday.com’s The Kurang Manis Podcast co-hosts Jasmine Low and Nikki Yeo met Desmond at The Fit Summit in 2019, and have been keeping in touch about DNA testing methods, genetics and our predisposition to diseases our parents had/have.
We asked Desmond to explain what his job entails, and he shared that his work in Medical Laboratory Science is an area specialising in ensuring that the appropriate biomarkers are collected and analysed the correct way to ensure that the results obtained are valid and provide accuracy. Nowadays, most medical/sports science projects, especially multidisciplinary projects have very complex agendas and hope to investigate multiple variables within the study. When there is blood work involved, often there is not enough understanding within the team or enough funding within the project to thoroughly consider the requirements to ensure that appropriate markers are taken and measured at the appropriate timeframe in an appropriate protocol to ensure validity of the results obtained from the analyses.
“I have seen projects where the principal investigator was essentially experimenting with varying centrifuging speeds to find out what would provide him with a ‘good sample’ to analyse for blood markers studied within his study.
There are procedures already established in medical laboratory science, such as the rotational speed and gravitational force required, depending on the analyte to be measured, when centrifuging blood collection tubes.
Additionally, when blood is collected for storage as well, there are variables that will also need to be considered to ensure the integrity of the sample is maintained throughout the storage period and how it is treated to ensure that results obtained from analyses thereafter are still valid.
In some studies, samples require immediate analyses as the results dictate the following steps for the participant within the project.
What I do at R3Gen, is to help to meet these requirements by ensuring that samples are analysed ‘STAT’ to accommodate the project protocols, organising the process from pre-analytical blood collection, all the way to post-analytical result provision and sample storage if required for future analyses, cost effectively.
What this does for projects is to help investigators dedicate their focus and time on the actual project instead, and freeing up their limited resource to ensure the proposed intent of the project is not short-changed.“
As the work of a Medical Lab Scientist can get technical with jargons, we asked him more questions from a ‘layman’ to gain more understanding into his work. This is what we discovered…
Understanding genetics and lifestyle
AFT: Can a couch potato be transformed, coached and guided into the fastest runner on the track and field?
DM: The intervention. As an experiment, one has a protocol requiring them to lay on the couch, eat whatever they want and be as sedentary as possible. The other has a protocol requiring them to have a regimented diet and planned intense activity during their day. Each therefore, as a result of their interventions, encourage very different genetic expressions to meet the demand set out.
It’s not that complicated if we wanted to encourage a positive/healthy change. It’s a issue of mind over matter, and thereafter, it’s really an endurance race to see how long you can keep your new intervention going.
Maximising performance is ultimately about a body’s propensity to enhancing its plasticity. With training, plasticity is attained. Looking at it simply, it’s about effecting an underlying lifestyle change.
Understanding your body’s physical baseline
AFT: So what you mean is we are able to increase and improve our baseline with the correct training and interventions in lifestyle and diet?
DM: Interventions – from a scientific perspective, it’s an intervention. For an everyday person, it’s a lifestyle habit.
There was a study done on 70,000 nurses who were in the 40-65 years age range. They were selected to participate in a Nurses Health Study. They found that there was a huge correlation between chronic diseases and their movement patterns, there was a direct link on those who moved more and those who didn’t.
AFT: Do our genes alone predispose us to a particular health condition?
DM: Looking over a broad time frame, the Centre for Disease Control USA (CDC) reports that genes do not predispose us to the health condition. Therefore, while our genes provide us with a blue-print, a lot of what is expressed from our genes is actually quite plastic and is a reflection of the intervention that we provide.
AFT: In a recent conversation, we discussed habit and culture at home. Our health is not merely a physiological or gene makeup, it’s very much a cultural and habitual makeup too. Imagine a child growing up at home where his father imposes his eating beliefs, lifes and dislikes upon his child. It’s what the father brings home, what he eats, or snacks that the child will learn and adopt.
DM: Here’s some information I have found to be interesting. Grandparents have a big part to play in the grandchild, especially from the maternal side. Here’s the explanation from a physiological side. If a female child, whatever a grandmother goes through in her life, has an impact on her genetic expression (that’s her lifestyle intervention). These expressions invariably have an effect on her eggs she is carrying. If one of those eggs contribute to a conception of a female child, during the development of that fetus, the eggs in the fetus also start to develop 8 to 20 weeks after it has started to grow. As such, whatever the grandmother is exposed to in her lifestyle in essence has an impact on her future child, and that of her grandchild.
AFT: Tell us a little about the types of fitness interventions.
DM: Exercise movements can basically be split up into different modalities. Concentric moves for example a flex going up stairs or eccentric moves for example a controlled extension like when you’re going down stairs. These are antagonistic moves and give an idea how your muscles work.
It requires a certain amount of energy or resource from our bodies when applied. How much exactly we don’t know, but if we understood that, we could then prescribe it better. They found that participants going down the stairs had a more significant benefit seen in their health markers – insulin sensitivity increased, bone density increased and cholesterol decreased.
It provides some insight into how exercise could be prescriptive. So by understanding this kind of exercise, one could then prescribe more efficient options to patients.
AFT: Hypothetically, can we transform a couch potato into the fastest man on the planet? Imagine Usain Bolt or Nicol David, an athlete whose body is so efficient, and if we turn them into a couch potato with bad habits, what would then happen? Desmond suspects that scientific evidence suggest that we can definitely provide an intervention to transform the couch potato participant into something closer to an Usain Bolt.
DM: An elite swimmer expands less energy to swim across the pool as his body is fine tuned to it as compared to a less than healthy individual.
GLUTS 4 gene, expressed based on lifestyle
DM: GLUTS 4 gene is considered one example of a lifestyle gene. It’s expression is altered by the level of muscle contraction. Failure to be active enough, could lead to the body being predisposed to diabetes by storing a lot of insulin.
In the video above, I shared a photo from my school days – I was an avid distance runner weighing in at only 69kg in my competition weight. I injured my knee (torn ACL and partial torn meniscus) in the army, and had to change sport. I got addicted to lifting weights in the gym as a result of seeing gains from physiotherapy on my legs post knee surgery. I had to undergo surgery to reconstruct my ACL. In that short amount of time that I was off my feet or on crutches, the loss of quad muscle was very visible. It is almost like an intervention experiment on myself, where the intervention here is the removal of as much muscle activity in my left quad over that period. It was shocking to see how fast your body decides to remove that musculature as a form of conservation of energy and resource.
After a few years of weight lifting, I managed to weigh in at 110KG with 12% body fat. While Dr. Desmond considered it an improvement, his mom’s was of the opinion that he had ruined her good work by looking “buff” like that. What it was for him, was a science experiment. He diligently weighed what he ate and how he trained to better understand the correlation between the intervention and the epigenetic expression.
Coming from an active family, Dr. Desmond’s mother was a runner for the state of Perak, Malaysia. His maternal great grandmother lived up to 100 and his maternal grandmother will be turning 100 soon. It seems health & fitness is a natural state of being for his family.
At one point, he collected data of his own blood work to determine the impact of his training and diet on his health markers and was able to see how his body was responding to what he was doing. It took a good number of years, but progressively trained the body to accept 8 meals a day from 3 to 4 meals before, while still maintaining an average 12% body fat. (At that point he was eating 8 meals a day like a gym fanatic. Also knew what he was doing with exercise.) In pathology, he learnt about the association between high CK and CK-MB (proteins present in heart muscle, also in skeletal muscles) with cardiovascular episodes. He found that the intense gym training produced abnormally high levels of CK and CKMB in his blood that looked like he was having small little cardiac episodes, but were actually attributed to the high amount of skeletal muscle tearing (hypertrophy) from his intense gym sessions.
AFT: How do we then measure a person’s baseline, or maximum exercise intervention before the body shows a high or overly high CK/CKMD level. Is there a sweet spot between exercise and too much exercise?
DM: Essentially, we need to understand that our baseline changes according to our lifestyle (intervention protocols).
In many professional athletes, part of their routine is having blood test done to identify how well their body is coping with their interventions and ensure that their body is showing signs of being in optimum performance. There are a whole barrage of markers that can be capitalised on if need be. For the everday athlete, perhaps these are not necessary or available but there are more basic markers readily available that can be capitalised on by anyone concerned about their health to ensure that their body is performing well to their lifestyle interventions. When monitored over time, these can provide a good indication over time of how we’re coping.
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Special Bonus Edition on Spotify Only features “Lorna’s Kitchen” by Singapore’s Jazz Great, Jeremy Monteiro
We are pleased to feature a song written by Singapore’s great Jazz muso Jeremy Monteiro, dedicated to his aunt Lorna. Titled Lorna’s Kitchen, we know for a fact that her Debal curry is divine. This episode is dedicated to Lorna – an amazing person whose fiery curry speaks volumes for her passion for life. We love you, Lorna!
This interview was recorded live with special guests in the panel:
- Datuk Nicol David, World No. 1 Squash Champion, voted The World Games Greatest Athlete of All Time
- Dr. Pran Yoganathan, Gastroenterologist & hepatologist
- Papi Zak, Standup comedian