Scottish Section Conference 2022 overview

Published online: 20 April 2022

Dr Alex Mavroeidi

This year’s Scottish Section Conference took place as a hybrid event at The Royal Society in Edinburgh. Thanks to the venue’s excellent technological support, online delegates were able to experience and engage with the conference in a very similar format to those who attended in person; showcasing just how the Society has been able grow and adapt to the post COVID-19 era.



Reports from both scientific journals and the media have suggested a role for dietary intervention in the protection and recovery from infection of transmissible viruses. Acknowledging this, the conference explored the latest advancements in nutrition, immune function, and infectious disease. Scientific Programme Organiser Dr Alexandra Mavroedi, University of Strathclyde, welcomed delegates alongside the Society’s President Professor Julie Lovegrove, University of Reading and Dr Bernadette Moore, University of Leeds, to explore the complexities associated with the topic and discuss challenges and opportunities for nutrition research.



Day one

Professor Margaret Rayman, University of Surrey, opened with a plenary lecture discussing the relevance of Selenium (Se) to viral disease. Se has a history of reducing the incidence and severity of viral infections and Professor Rayman used recent studies in China to show a significant association between COVID-19 cure rate and background Se status. However, cure-rates continued to rise beyond the Se intake required to optimise selenoproteins which suggests other factors play a role. Professor Rayman proposed that perhaps both selenoproteins and redox-active Se species employ separate mechanisms that attenuate inflammatory responses and improve the outcome of SARS-CoV-2 infection.

Exploring dietary supplementation and immune function, Symposium one opened with Professor Nicolette Bishop, Loughborough University, discussing the consequences of inactivity on inflammatory immune cells involved in the development of cardiometabolic disease. Central obesity is associated with migration of inflammatory cells into adipose tissue, disrupting adipose tissue and immune and metabolic homeostasis. Professor Bishop showed how physical activity alone can lower the number of these inflammatory cells and subsequently reduce the risk of developing cardiometabolic disease or improve the outcomes for those who have already developed these conditions.

Looking at the role zinc ions play in regulating signalling pathways in immune cells, Professor Lothar Rink, RWTH Aachen University Hospital, showed how immune function can be re-established in elderly people with zinc deficiency following supplementation. Professor Rink added that high salt consumption negatively impacts zinc homeostasis and consequently impairs the immune response. Thus, excessive dietary sodium intake and simultaneous low zinc intake, as commonly seen in the western diet, might cause pathologically altered immune responses and loss of healthy life years. Professor Philip Newsholme, Curtin University, concluded the symposium with an interesting talk on glutamine metabolism and optimal immune function, highlighting that glutamine supplementation may benefit those under acute inflammatory stress and could benefit subjects experiencing ‘long covid’ symptoms.

The Original Communication sessions that followed lunch gave students and researchers the opportunity to present research findings to their peers and other topic experts. Symposium two followed and explored micronutrient availability and infection propensity.

There is now a body of evidence suggesting vitamin D may have much greater impact on human health than its established role in protecting against rickets. Professor Martin Hewison, University of Birmingham, discussed how association studies have linked vitamin D deficiency to a range of infectious and autoimmune diseases, yet supplementation studies remain inconclusive.

Professor Hewison stressed the need to better understand optimum levels of vitamin D for immune function before further research is carried out and highlighted the importance of considering supplementing with the more potent calcifediol rather than vitamin D3.  Professor Susan Fairweather-Tait, University of East Anglia, followed with a discussion on Se status and infectious disease susceptibility. As immune function has not been used as an endpoint for setting dietary reference values, average requirements for optimal health are still unknown. Using results from a recent systematic review of randomised controlled trials, Professor Fairweather-Tait highlighted that Se supplementation gives a dose response increase in immune regulatory T cells and IgA up to plasma Se levels of 110 ug/L, although the overall effects on immunity were minor. Due to the narrow range between Se deficiency and safe upper intake levels, more risk analysis work with greater data points is required. Professor Neil Walsh, Liverpool John Moores University, closed symposium two with an overview of nutrition and athlete immunity. Traditionally, immunologists have only focused on understanding the immune system’s ability to fight a pathogen (resistance). Professor Walsh explained the importance of also considering immune tolerance to better understand the length and severity of an individual’s infection as well as elucidate a potential role for nutrition.

Day one concluded with an excellent student workshop from Professor Alexandra Johnstone, University of Aberdeen,who shared tips on creating impact from research.


Day two 

Day two began with a breakfast symposium hosted by the co-founder of the Food Doctor, Ian Marber. Focusing particularly on the role of social media and the challenges around effective science communication and debunking nutrition myths, Mr Marber stressed that to build public trust, nutrition professionals have a crucial role to play in communicating evidence based, and not opinion-based, science. 

The final symposium of the conference took a closer look at lessons learnt from ‘long-covid’ in relation to chronic fatigue, nutrition and immunity. Fatigue has been reported as a persistent symptom both during and after COVID-19 infection. Dr Domenico Azzolino, University of Milan, highlighted that abnormal release of pro-inflammatory cytokines and increased catabolism, are characteristic of the virus, and are key factors mediating the fatigue symptom. Professor Paul Greenhaff, University of Nottingham followed, explaining that any major trauma or infection has a rapid and negative effect on muscle metabolism. Professor Greenhaff, stressed how recovery in COVID-19 survivors is proving a major issue with survivors potentially experiencing fatigue and impaired mental health for many years, noting there is a need for more multi-disciplinary experimental medicine interventions to better understand the mechanisms involved if we are to successfully find ways of stimulating recovery.

Taking lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr Sarah Berry, King's College London, gave a fascinating final plenary lecture showing the huge potential big data offers nutritional research, in terms of scale, breadth, depth and precision. The ZOE COVID-19 Symptom Study (CSS) is an excellent example of how the pandemic has forced a paradigm shift in research methodology, enabling the study of diet and immune function to advance at pace. Dr Berry showed how the CSS has not only rapidly advanced our understanding of the varying symptoms the virus causes, but it has also given us clarity around variability in risk between individuals with different diets and lifestyles.

Professor Julie Lovegrove thanked the Scottish Section for hosting the conference, and delegates for their valuable contributions and engaging hybrid panel discussions during the event and on Twitter. It was clear from panel discussions and lectures that maintaining adequate micronutrient status is important in relation to infectious diseases, but the evidence is still lacking with regards to whether exceeding adequate status is necessary for reducing the risk of infection. 

The Society would like to thank Clasado Biosciences, American Pistachio Growers (APG), Cambridge University Press, and Yakult for their support.  Papers exploring the topics covered will be available in Proceedings of the Nutrition Society over the coming months and delegates can continue to generate post conference discussion on social media using the hashtag #NSScottish22.