Janos Zempleni never imagined how much the Nebraska Center for the Prevention of Obesity Diseases through Dietary Molecules would benefit the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and the state.
Then he added up the numbers: nearly $100 million in external funding, about $36 for every dollar the university invested; five (and counting) junior faculty careers launched through independent grants; and a vital research gap filled with a new core facility for faculty and industry.
“By NIH standards, this is exceptional,” said Zempleni, the center’s director and Willa Cather Professor of molecular nutrition in the Department of Nutrition and Health Sciences.
The center was founded five years ago with an $11 million grant from the National Institutes of Health’s Center of Biomedical Research Excellence program.
Fueled by its record of success, the center recently received another $11 million NIH grant to continue for five additional years.
Entering the second phase of the center, Zempleni said the team aims to become a leader in the prevention of obesity and obesity-related diseases, including Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, by understanding processes at the molecular level.
Specifically, NPOD researchers focus on understanding how nutrients initiate biochemical chain reactions that cause a cellular response, including fat storage and disease-causing inflammation. These nutrient-dependent pathways are promising targets for methods to prevent and treat obesity-related diseases.
“The national trends for obesity continue to be really bad,” Zempleni said. “Our overall concept is to come up with strategies that are consumer friendly.”
Dustin Yates, assistant professor of animal science, has uncovered one promising strategy. He’s targeting a predisposition toward obesity, diabetes and other metabolic disorders that occurs during fetal development. Maternal stress, including poor diet, obesity, smoking or drug use, can cause the fetus to conserve nutrients, resulting in a lower birth weight. After birth, in a food-rich environment, that thrifty adaptation becomes a liability, affecting glucose metabolism and energy storage.
Chronic stress stunts the placenta, causing fetal hypoxia, a lack of oxygen that can lead to developmental changes. Today, underweight babies are treated after birth. Yates’ team discovered that providing mom with oxygen for eight hours a day — the human equivalent of wearing an oxygen mask at night — greatly improves fetal growth in sheep.
“NPOD’s been completely instrumental,” Yates said of the center’s support, citing research funding, internal and external mentorship programs, symposia and the Biomedical and Obesity Research Core facility. “The research core provides a lot of services and techniques that I don’t have the ability to do on my own. So we get a bigger picture of what’s going on.”
The facility conducts blood chemical analyses, providing researchers with metabolism and other data. The core facility also conducts animal behavior tests and cell culture work, services that are difficult to outsource to distant laboratories.
Juan Cui, assistant professor of computer science and engineering, has also benefited from the support early in her career.
“Working on a bigger team, you have the chance to expose yourself to more significant research questions,” she said. “This is very effective training for me. They really sped up my progress.”
As a computer scientist focused on improving human health, Cui relies on collaborations to put her research to greater effect. Among her research accomplishments, she developed MicroRNA Discovery, a web-based platform that gives researchers worldwide the ability to analyze vast numbers of nucleotide sequences found in blood and urine samples. The tool helps identify microRNAs, little understood cell fragments important to gene regulation, and determine whether they are native to the organism or arrived through nutrient intake.
MicroRNA Discovery could help identify irregular levels of microRNAs in the bloodstream, signaling the onset of cancers or other diseases and speeding the screening process.
To date, the Nebraska Center for the Prevention of Obesity Diseases through Dietary Molecules has focused on supporting junior faculty, an early COBRE requirement. Now, Zempleni plans to support established researchers as well.
He’s also thinking long term. To help translate the center’s research into human health treatments, he’s expanding relationships with University of Nebraska Medical Center and University of Nebraska–Lincoln faculty, including public health and psychology.
The addition of clinical and translational research will help ensure the center’s long-term sustainability and ability to attract external research funding, Zempleni said.
For the past five years, the center’s director has experienced his own learning curve.
“This is not a job for a micromanager,” Zempleni said, with a laugh. “I learned to rely more heavily on delegating.”
But he’s proud of the center’s success and the people, particularly support staff and junior faculty, who contributed to the center’s continued COBRE funding.
“It’s fun to be a center director. I really enjoy it, and I’m looking forward to the next five years.”