Profile: Meet Prof Bernhard Boehm: More ammunition to fight diabetes

Andy Kwan, Writer, Communications & Outreach

“You should stop using your smartphone when you are eating,” said LKCMedicine Professor in Metabolic Medicine and a Principal Investigator in Immuno-Metabolism Laboratory Bernhard Boehm. “Doing anything else during mealtimes, including using your mobile device to play games or read emails, and in the process eating in a hurry, will increase the stress hormones in your body.”

His ideal eating habits: Don’t rush through meals; treat eating as a social event; talk to your neighbours; don’t walk around and eat; sit down, relax and focus on the taste.

“The causes of diabetes are mostly environmental, and could be prevented if only we are conscious about it. It has been proven by research that lifestyle habits could induce the increase of stress hormones that could be the cause of diabetes,” explained Prof Boehm. 

“The human body has a very sensitive recognition system. If there are too many interruptions around you, your stress hormones will go up. In the long run, this will increase your body weight and cause harm to your heart, muscles and even your sleep. You will become less insulin sensitive. This forms the basis for the development of diabetes, in addition to an unhealthy diet,” he cautioned.

The exhortation is not without basis. After all, as an endocrinologist, Prof Boehm is highly respected for his research in diseases related to hormones, especially diabetes. He will soon have more ammunition to prove his findings to naysayers. In January 2019, he was appointed to the Ong Tiong Tat Chair Professorship in Diabetes Research, made possible from a generous donation by the estate of the late Irene Tan Liang Kheng to LKCMedicine. 

Prof Boehm, who hails from Germany, joined LKCMedicine in 2013 as one of the founding professors. A medical graduate from the Johann Wolfgang Goethe-University in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, he was first drawn to find out more about diabetes when he saw how his mentor, Professor Karl Schoeffling, researched and innovated a medication to treat diabetes which is still used around the world today.

The treatment for diabetes has significantly changed and improved over the years. But if Prof Boehm has his way, he believes education is an important tool in the day-to-day self-management of diabetes. “Implementing self-management at diagnosis has been proven to be cost-effective with reduced hospital admissions and a lower risk of complications,” he said.

Through proper counselling and training, he believes that a diabetic patient could be on the route to recovery. “While the advancement of diabetic medicine may help to slow down or even eradicate the loss of vision or leg amputation in serious cases, these worst scenarios could be prevented if a patient is better engaged and informed, and therefore can follow a doctor’s orders properly to self-manage the disease,” he added.

Together with medication, diabetic patients would need to change their lifestyles in order to bring down their glucose levels significantly, stressed the professor who has received research training from medical institutions in Germany, Denmark and the United States.

With his newly appointed professorship, Prof Boehm hopes to devote more time researching deeper into the development of Type 2 diabetes amongst different ethnic groups in Asia. “There is a dramatic rise in Type 2 diabetes in the 18- to 40-year-old age group, and particularly in Singapore. It’s not just an elderly disease only anymore,” he further disclosed. 

A contributing cause is the common Singapore diet which contains a lot of fried food with saturated fats that produce harmful chemical reactions in the body. In addition, highly processed foods that are widely consumed contain so-called trans fats that create inflammation, which is linked to heart diseases, stroke, diabetes, and other chronic conditions. His team is looking deeper into the co-relations between age, ethnicity and lifestyle in diabetic patients from the region. From the findings, he hopes to develop treatment methods that would correspond with these co-factors.

“The way we treat diabetic patients has changed significantly. We don’t just bring down the glucose in blood. We also need to tackle blood lipids, cholesterol and blood pressure. All said, we still have to be very cautious with these co-factors. Diabetes has developed new complications and it’s not a glucose-centric disease anymore but a multi-faceted one,” said Prof Boehm. 

Prior to joining LKCMedicine, Prof Boehm was the Acting Dean (Graduate Medical Studies) of Ulm University in Germany. He has also worked in the Department of Internal Medicine at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe-University Medical Centre, Germany.

Among his achievements in the area of diabetes is pioneering research on autoimmune diabetes in children, and classical and atypical autoimmune diabetes forms in adults. He is also one of the first to set up population-based cohorts to study diabetes development in children and adults and has developed in-depth research on risk factors related to micro- and cardiovascular complications.

For his research excellence, Professor Boehm has won prestigious awards including the Gerhard Hess Award from the German Research Council and the Ernst-Friedrich Pfeiffer Award from the German Diabetes Association. 

To date, Prof Boehm has published more than 400 papers in internationally peer-reviewed journals, and more than 25,000 citations as of 2018. His work is often cited in scientific publications in the fields of diabetes, endocrinology and metabolism. He is also the editor for several textbooks on diabetes mellitus and clinical chemistry, and has also co-edited several international journals.

At LKCMedicine, Prof Boehm is focusing on a pioneer study on cross-talking between immune cells and insulin-producing ß-cells of the pancreas, and late-onset autoimmune diabetes.

His parting shot for a healthy diet: “Include some colourful fruits like strawberries and blueberries in your diet as these are rich in antioxidants. Almonds are good too as they contain healthy fats, fibre and protein.”