New NIH grant will help Pennington Biomedical scientists to study metabolic diseases

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A new federal grant will allow young scientists to delve into the mechanisms of emotional eating and preeclampsia and other disorders not considered "classic" metabolic diseases.

The grant provides Pennington Biomedical with the opportunity to establish a new research focus that should be a big benefit for the state of Louisiana, which has a disproportionately high incidence of metabolic diseases."

Jacqueline Stephens, Ph.D., Professor and the primary investigator on the new grant

"This grant is perfectly aligned with the research center's mission and fully embraces the importance of understanding the basic mechanisms that regulate metabolic health. This research is vital to helping solve the epidemic of obesity and its related illnesses," said John Kirwan, PhD, Executive Director. "The COBRE will provide for the development and training of the next generation of independent scientists."

The five-year COBRE grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is expected to fund four research projects per year. The initial studies include:

  • Research by Susan Burke, PhD, Assistant Professor of Research at Pennington Biomedical, will investigate lipid metabolism ¬ - how fats are broken down and burned - in the pancreas. This includes examining the cells that make and secrete insulin. Reduced fatty acid oxidation, a result of poorly functioning pancreatic cells, may increase fat storage in other places like the kidneys, liver, heart, and muscle. Accumulation of lipid in the wrong tissues results in a number of serious health issues. The project will provide critical insights into the contributions of pancreatic lipid metabolism during aging and obesity.
  • Studies by Jenny Sones, DVM PhD, Assistant Professor of Theriogenology in Veterinary Clinical Sciences at LSU School of Veterinary Medicine, will determine how reproductive fat tissue contributes to preeclampsia, a condition of dangerously high blood pressure that can occur during pregnancy. Worldwide, greater than > 75,000 women and 500,000 infants die as a result of preeclampsia each year, and the numbers are rising. In the United States, preeclampsia impacts approximately 8 percent of pregnancies. Maternal obesity is a major risk factor for preeclampsia. In order to prevent, predict, and treat this life-threatening disorder, a better understanding of maternal obesity is needed. The study will investigate the contribution of fat tissue to preeclampsia.
  • Research from the laboratory of Dr. Emily Qualls-Creekmore, PhD, Assistant Professor and Director, Behavioral Neurosciences at Pennington Biomedical, will seek to identify the neural circuit and molecular mechanisms that link metabolism and anxiety. It is known that specific neurons, or nerve cells, can drive eating for pleasure and also modulate anxiety. This research will use state-of-the-art methodology to reveal new mechanisms that the brain uses to integrate the influence of emotion on appetite. These studies may help in finding a treatment for anxiety-associated eating disorders

All of the projects fall within the center's core mission to study disorders where metabolism clearly affects the incidence and progression of chronic diseases that reduce human life and health spans.

"It's a logical extension of the research we're already doing and builds on our unique institutional strengths," Dr. Stephens said. "For example, we provide the core services our postdocs need to further their research interests. Those services include cutting-edge technology and technical procedures ¬- microscopy and imaging of cells and tissues, cell culture facilities, comparative biology, mouse metabolism and behavior, genomics and transgenics."

The COBRE grant will also fund mentoring and training for Pennington Biomedical's young scientists and help them establish themselves so they can eventually secure their own research funding. Pennington Biomedical has an established and proven system for training and mentoring junior faculty.

The additional training focus in this grant award includes genomics (single-cell RNA sequencing) and light-sheet microscopy. Genomics provides a way to look at different parts of individual cells and identify patterns of gene expression, which helps researchers pinpoint the cells that affect obesity and other metabolic diseases. Light-sheet microscopy is a technology that offers faster, higher-resolution imaging - down to the subcellular level - than magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computerized tomography (CT).

A substantial part of the Pennington Biomedical's success for training and mentoring junior faculty has been due to COBRE awards led by Dr. Thomas Gettys entitled "Mentoring Obesity and Diabetes Research in Louisiana." Gettys is a Pennington Biomedical professor and serves as director of its Nutrient Sensing and Adipocyte Signaling Laboratory. He helped launch several successful researchers, who now have their own independent, NIH funding. Getty's COBRE to date has won $24.8 million in scientific grant awards.

"The hope and the aim is to repeat that success with this new COBRE award," Dr. Stephens said.


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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