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A Master of Science (MSc) in Medical and Health Sciences (by Research) graduate from the International Medical University (IMU), Chan Chee Shan, is the 2018 recipient of the Postgraduate Thesis Prize from the Nutrition Society of Malaysia (NSM). Chee Shan was awarded the prize for her MSc thesis titled “Metabolic Responses to Isomaltulose by Malaysian Chinese Adults: A Pilot Study”. She worked under the supervision of an interdisciplinary team that comprised of (Retd) Prof Peter Michael Barling from the Division of Human Biology, School of Medicine, Dr Sangeetha Shyam from the Division of Nutrition and Dietetics, and A/Prof Verna Lee Kar Mun from the School of Medicine, IMU. Chee Shan embarked on her research journey in IMU during her undergraduate days when she pursued a Bachelor of Science (Hons) degree in Dietetics with Nutrition. During her undergraduate research, she worked with Prof Fatimah and Dr Sangeetha to study the glycaemic index of selected Malaysian foods, looking at how they increased blood sugar. Chee Shan, a trained dietitian, was acutely aware of how common diabetes was in Malaysia and wanted to contribute towards finding ways to improve blood sugar levels. Thus, it was natural for Chee Shan to be drawn to work for her Masters on a project that was studying an interesting “low-glycaemic” sugar called isomaltulose.

Isomaltulose is a sugar made up of glucose and fructose, just like the common table sugar (sucrose). But sucrose and isomaltulose differ in how their fructose and glucose molecules are linked to each other. This unique link in isomaltulose makes is less digestible in humans. This inspired Chee Shan and her team to study the potential of isomaltulose as a healthy sugar substitute. They did so by comparing the rise of blood sugar level after consuming table sugar and isomaltulose based drink. They confirmed that isomaltulose causes lower spikes in blood sugar levels as compared to sucrose. These findings suggest that isomaltulose may be more suitable in making health foods for people who want to lose weight or control their type 2 diabetes. Taking a cue from the slow absorption of isomaltulose, the research group looked at whether more of the isomaltulose passed undigested into the colon. They researched this by doing faecal and breath testing. Their research also suggested potential prebiotic activities of this novel sugar when consumed at certain levels. Their experiments suggest that isomaltulose may have the ability to support the growth of certain “good” bacteria in our guts that improve digestion and immunity.

While no major adverse effects to isomaltulose even at high doses among Chee Shan’s research participants who were a small group of healthy young Malaysians of Chinese ethnicity. Therefore, she concurs with her supervisors that more research is needed before isomaltulose becomes more widely used. IMU researchers will continue to further investigate the safety and acceptability of isomaltulose when added to other carbohydrates when making cookies for example. Chee Shan’s research findings can be used innovatively for producing weight loss and blood sugar management food products.

Chee Shan says that the biggest learning point from her Masters journey was “To be patient, positive and persistent about what you do because there is no shortcut in research”. Thinking back Chee Shan says, “I enjoyed making connections with my study subjects and mingling around with friends the most during my postgraduate days at IMU” Armed with a Masters from IMU, Chee Shan is now an Assistant Unit Manager at Sodexo Malaysia Sdn Bhd. She will pursue her passion to improve the health and well-being of people through good and healthy food. She is currently working on getting her research published.

Well done to Chee Shan for the hard work and congratulations for winning the prize!

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