Often times, modern medicine turns to data from global research to mould the current clinical guidelines. No stranger to the field of research, Singapore has recently presented some vital findings of their own—based on studies run in the country.

1. Drinking a glass of milk daily can reduce risk of hypertension and diabetes

A recent study conducted by the National University of Singapore (NUS) concluded that adults who drink at least one 240ml glass of cow's milk daily have a 12% lower risk of diabetes, and a 6% lower risk of developing hypertension compared to those who do not drink milk.

Established in 1993 by NUS, the Singapore Chinese Health Study garnered about 63,000 Singaporean Chinese participants who are now 45 to 74 years old. Despite the study focusing on one racial group to standardise methodology, “the results are applicable to all racial backgrounds and age group,” said Professor Koh Woon Puay, a member of the research group. She noted that these findings were in line with those from 22 other countries that have investigated the beneficial effects of milk.

The calcium in dairy products increases the body's insulin secretion and sensitivity, which subsequently controls blood sugar levels, explained Professor Koh. The whey protein found in milk also decreases the production of angiotensin—thus, regulating blood pressure.

Despite these advantages, the study found that Asians tend to drink less milk compared to people from other countries. Putting things in perspective, Chinese nationals drank about 20 litres of milk per capita in 2013, which is far less than the 125 litres per capita drank by the Finnish.

“Sometimes, there's a misconception that the lactose intolerance gene is more common in Asians; but, there has been no solid evidence to support this belief,” explained Professor Koh. Asians also tend to consume less milk than Westerners due to differences in cuisines. Bread, which contains butter, is common in many European countries; whereas our staple here is rice,” she added.

2. Glial cells in the brain can regulate appetite

Dr Han Weiping and his team of researchers from the Singapore Bioimaging Consortium collaborated with scientists from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to investigate the full potential of glial cells in the brain. The team’s study focused on astrocytes—a type of glial cell.

They found that when these cells were activated in mice, they ate roughly thrice as much as normal. In the past, it was thought that glial cells merely provided support to the other brain cells. With this, it is proven that glial cells play a key role in regulating appetite and can induce or suppress feeding behaviour when manipulated.

Dr Han said, “Traditionally, the idea is that they maintain the health of neurons by providing nutrients and signalling molecules. Now, we also show they are involved in regulating feeding.” He added that this finding sheds light on a new area that can be further investigated because “Treating appetite is not easy as the natural instinct of humans and animals is to eat, and suppressing appetite and feeding behaviour are counter-evolutionary.”

The research offers a new target which researchers could potentially exploit to create drugs that tackle food related conditions, such as obesity.

3. Link found between histone proteins and autism

Scientists have made a breakthrough in autism studies, a condition that affects 1 – 2% of the Singaporean population. This research investigated the differences in the DNA and protein packaging of autistic brains compared with normal brains.

Led by Shyam Prabhakar, a computational biologist at the A*STAR Genome Institute of Singapore, a team studied 250 brain samples from patients diagnosed with autism and matched them with controls. They observed modifications to the histone proteins around which DNA is wrapped. These histone proteins have the ability to alter a gene’s accessibility and its expression. Specifically, the team studied histone tags, H3K27ac, found at regions of DNA that activate gene expression.

Researchers picked up thousands of differences between the normal and autistic brain tissue. “Histone acetylation is systematically altered in the autistic brain,” said Prabhakar. He hopes these findings point towards discovering potential drug targets. Prabhakar added that the findings prove the effectiveness of histone acetylome-wide association studies to better understand other conditions.

“It’s a gold mine—a huge untapped area of research that should be applied to a whole bunch of diseases,” he said. MIMS

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