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The NIH Funds new Biomedical Disease Center in Louisiana to Pioneer Research to understand Metabolic components of various disorders and diseases including Diabetes, Preeclampsia & Anxiety behaviors

Released: Saturday, May 23, 2020

Jacqueline Stephens Jacqueline Stephens, PhD Professor, Claude B. Pennington, Jr. endowed Chair in Biomedical Research

A new federal grant to establish a Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) has been awarded to Pennington Biomedical scientists. The purpose of this grant is to establish a Metabolic Basis of Disease Center that will allow young scientists to delve into the mechanisms of diabetes, preeclampsia, and anxiety-driven eating.   

“The grant provides Pennington Biomedical with the opportunity to establish a new research focus that will hopefully be a significant benefit for the state of Louisiana, which has a disproportionately high incidence of metabolic diseases,” said Jacqueline Stephens, PhD, Professor, center director and the primary investigator of this new five-year center 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 initial research projects 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.

Each of these research projects fall within the Pennington Biomedical’s core mission to study disorders where metabolism clearly affects the incidence and progression of chronic diseases that reduce human life and health spans.  The incidence of metabolic related diseases continues to increase in the U.S.  and Louisiana has been disproportionately affected because of demographics, economics, and a high incidence of health disparities.

“The research in our new Metabolic Basis of Disease Center is a logical extension of the research we’re already doing and builds on our unique institutional strengths,” Dr. Stephens said.  “For example, we provide cutting-edge scientific core services to promote the use of state-of-the-art methodologies.  These services include new methods associated with microscopy and imaging of cells and tissues, cell culture facilities, mouse metabolism and behavior, genomics, and transgenics.” New scientific cores and training will be led by Drs. Chris Morrison, David Burk, and Michael Salbaum. NIH has also provided funds for renovations in the mouse metabolism laboratory.

The primary focus of the new Metabolic Basis of Disease Center is to provide mentoring and training for Pennington Biomedical’s young scientists and help them establish themselves so they can eventually secure their own independent research funding. The grant will support 14 professional jobs in Louisiana for five years.

“Federal funding is extremely competitive.  Louisiana is one of 23 states that are awarded less than 5 percent of all government biomedical research funding,” Dr. Stephens said.  “To make our young people competitive, we have to provide them with additional skill sets and training.”

Training in innovative methods will include the use of single-cell RNA sequencing and light-sheet microscopy. Single-cell RNA sequencing provides a way to assess the different contributions of individual cells that make up a tissue. This approach can help researchers identify the specific cells that contribute to a variety of metabolic disease states. Light-sheet microscopy is a technology that offers faster, higher-resolution imaging – down to the subcellular level -- and provides more information than magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computerized tomography (CT).

An overall benefit of the grant will be to strengthen Pennington Biomedical so it can be more competitive with other major research facilities that study metabolic diseases, including Harvard Medical School, the University of California at San Diego, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and Washington University in St. Louis, Dr. Stephens said.   

“The question is, ‘How do we obtain research competitiveness in a state that each year pulls in a little more than one half of one percent of the National Institutes of Health’s research budget?’  This grant is a small step in that direction and will hopefully make our science more competitive at the national level,” Dr. Stephens said.

Total NIH funding for the 2019 fiscal year was $30.82 billion.  Louisiana’s share, $174.1 million, amounted to less than 0.6 percent of the total.

It’s difficult to predict how much additional NIH funding the grant could help Pennington Biomedical scientists attract.  However, a similar COBRE grant awarded to Pennington Biomedical’s Thomas Gettys, PhD, Professor and Director, Nutrient Sensing and Adipocyte Signaling Laboratory, helped launch several successful researchers, who now have their own independent NIH funding.  This previous COBRE has resulted in $24.8 million in scientific grant awards.

“The hope and aim is that we will repeat that success with this new Metabolic Basis of Disease Center grant,” Dr. Stephens said.

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This work is supported by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health under Grant 1P20GM135002-01.  The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences or the National Institutes of Health.

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About LSU's Pennington Biomedical Research Center

LSU's Pennington Biomedical Research Center is at the forefront of medical discovery as it relates to understanding the triggers of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and dementia. The center conducts basic, clinical and population research, and is affiliated with Louisiana State University. The research enterprise at Pennington Biomedical includes over 450 employees within a network of 40 clinics and research laboratories, and 13 highly specialized core service facilities. Its scientists and physician/scientists are supported by research trainees, lab technicians, nurses, dietitians and other support personnel. Pennington Biomedical is located in state-of-the-art research facilities on a 222-acre campus in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.