Eating our way to health

Eating our way to health

27 Apr 2016    

Janos Zempleni says there’s no magic bullet to solve the obesity epidemic in America. But research he leads as director of the Nebraska Center for Prevention of Obesity Diseases through Dietary Molecules (NPOD), may make a serious dent in a problem that costs billions of dollars a year in related healthcare costs.

NPOD is a Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) funded through an $11.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. Its purpose is to study nutrients at the molecular level that may lead to prevention of obesity and obesity-related diseases. Zempleni’s goal for NPOD is to become a global leader in nutrient research.

Janos Zempleni
Janos Zempleni answered questions from the media at a news conference Aug. 26, 2014 announcing the $11.3 million NPOD grant. (Photo by Brad Stauffer.)

Recent discoveries by Zempleni and his NPOD colleagues identified bioactive compounds in foods that “nobody knew about two years ago.” These compounds could result in foods that assist the body in burning more fat or prevent obesity related diseases.

“We have some really good leads right now,” says Zempleni, Willa Cather Professor of molecular nutrition in the Department of Nutrition and Health Sciences. “We have targets that we can manipulate by diet or nutrition that will ultimately either prevent obesity or at least decrease the severity of symptoms of obesity and obesity related diseases.”

In the future, consumers may be able to simply pick foods rich in these compounds, and food manufacturers may be able to enrich their products. An example could be an additive or substituting one fat for another.

“We might be able to do this without consumers having to make compromises in taste,” said Zempleni. “With minor adjustments in their diet, consumers won’t even be able to tell.”

Part of the NIH grant helped NPOD establish a core facility—a centralized shared research laboratory that provides access to instruments, technology and services. NPOD hosts the Biomedical Obesity Research Core (BORC) in the basement of Leverton Hall on East Campus. With cutting edge equipment and trained staff, BORC serves researchers and scientists on the University of Nebraska Lincoln campus, the University of Nebraska Medical Center and the University of Nebraska at Kearney. Completed in January, it even markets to external researchers. Later this spring, they expect their first contract to provide services to a local pharmaceutical company.

“We are just getting started, and day by day we want to make our facility sustainable,” says BORC director Aktar Ali. “Our goal is to be the number one facility in the country.”

BORC lab photo

Ph.D. student Mahrou Sadri preparing culture media for human cell cultures in the BORC lab.  (Photo by Craig Chandler, University Communications.)

Zempleni admits it’s difficult for core facilities to become sustainable without federal funding. The BORC core facility has purposely broadened its focus to include any biomedical research, not just molecular research on obesity. That promises to help the facility’s long-term viability. Since opening in January, the lab has responded to over 150 requests, mainly from other UNL departments and the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

Both Ali and Zempleni point to other benefits of these centers besides research. Approximately 16 people are employed by the operation. Some have come to Lincoln from other states, like Ali, but others are natives of Nebraska. Through its five project leaders, NPOD is also generating new external funding. There are also opportunities for UNL undergraduate and graduate students to gain valuable experience and skills by working at the facility.

While the magic bullet is not a likely outcome of NPOD research, it holds great promise for greater understanding of how bioactive compounds may work in our bodies to derail the devastating effects of obesity. Along the way the state’s economy gets a boost and a new generation of scientists are prepared to research solutions for healthier living.

Doctoral student Ezra Mutai works in the BORC lab preparing for the isolation of nanoparticles (exosomes) from milk. (Photo by Craig Chandler, University Communications.)
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