Heritage College researcher wins major project support from American Diabetes Association

Oct 18, 2017

Kevin Lee in his laboratory.

A faculty member at the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine has received a major grant from the American Diabetes Association to support his research program, which could lead to better interventions and treatment strategies for diabetes and obesity.

Kevin Lee, Ph.D., assistant professor of biomedical sciences at the Heritage College, has received a Junior Faculty Development award from ADA to fund his research project, “Differential Effects of Obesity and Inflammatory Cytokines on White Adipocyte Subpopulations.”

“As a critical component of our mission to prevent and cure diabetes and to improve the lives of all people with diabetes, the American Diabetes Association is committed to supporting early-career diabetes researchers,” said Tamara Darsow, Ph.D., ADA’s senior vice president of research and consumer programs. “Dr. Lee’s research proposal explores innovative approaches to better understand diabetes risk states. This research is critical to turning the tide on diabetes through improved prevention and treatment. Among an extremely competitive cohort of notable proposals, Dr. Lee’s rose to the top. We are pleased to support Dr. Lee as he drives toward new discoveries and establishes his career in diabetes research.” Of the latest set of applicants for the JFD award, less than 16 percent received funding, according to ADA.

Lee said the award, providing $552,000 over four years, will be a great boon to his research program, which entails expensive lab work.

“The research that I’m doing is actually looking at how fat develops,” he explained. “What we’re discovering is that fat cells are very, very different, and we’re developing all the mechanisms we need to investigate that at the molecular level.”

Lee hopes his research will lead to more targeted treatments for diabetes and other diseases for which obesity – affecting about a third of U.S. adults – is a contributing factor. Nationally, more than 9 percent of the population has diabetes, and 1.5 million new cases are diagnosed every year. In southeast Ohio, rates for Type 2 diabetes, which typically onsets later in life than Type 1 and is more common, are even higher than state and national averages.

Lee noted that while the diabetes-obesity connection is well-known, excess body fat has also been linked to health issues such as cardiovascular disease and even cancer. The ADA award will let him keep moving ahead with his quest to better understand in cellular terms how obesity comes about.

Lee was one of four new research faculty hired into the Diabetes Institute in 2015, with financial support from the Osteopathic Heritage Foundation’s Vision 2020 award. This cluster hire was meant to augment the college’s ongoing research efforts around obesity, diabetes and related conditions.

Darlene Berryman, Ph.D., interim associate dean for research and innovation at the Heritage College and executive director of the Diabetes Institute, said Lee’s research is truly groundbreaking. “While significant research and concern has focused on the ‘quantity’ of fat, Dr. Lee’s work shows that there are different types of fat cells present, which likely are critical to the function of the tissue and overall health. Better understanding of the types of fat cells present and how they relate to metabolic diseases, such as diabetes, has important clinical and therapeutic potential. His work could radically change the way we view adipose tissue.” 

Heritage College Executive Dean Ken Johnson, D.O., called the ADA award a healthy sign of a thriving research campaign. “Improving research and treatment of diabetes was one of the major goals laid out for us in the Vision 2020 grant,” Johnson said. “Enhancing our research program, as we’ve done through the targeted hiring of gifted scientists like Dr. Lee, is a crucial part of achieving that goal. His securing this important support from the ADA tells us that our efforts are showing results.”

ADA’s Junior Faculty Development awards are two- to four-year awards given to tenure-track faculty up to the rank of assistant professor who have had 10 or fewer years of research experience after earning their terminal degree. The awards can be used to financially support a research project and cover salary for the primary investigator. Lee’s award began in January.

In a description of his research project, Lee notes that recent studies have shown that adipose (fat) tissue is more complex than had been previously thought, being made up of a mixed population of different types of fat cells, or adipocytes. Lee’s research has identified three distinct sub-populations of adipocytes, each with its own unique gene expression signatures and metabolic traits. In mice, all three types of cells have been shown to contribute to forming fat tissue.

Lee noted that while one of the three fat cell sub-populations has been identified in previous research, it had not been intensely studied; the other two had never been described by any previous researcher.

Lee’s ADA-supported project aims to clarify how obesity and inflammation may affect these sub-populations of fat cells in different ways. In obesity, immune cells called macrophages invade fat and kill adipocytes by releasing inflammatory cytokines (signaling molecules). Scientists believe this process is one factor causing systemic insulin resistance and diabetes. And some research has suggested that this obesity-causing process may affect different fat cell sub-populations in varying ways.

The hypothesis Lee wants to test is that the adipocyte sub-groups may, at least in part, control the inflammatory response in fat tissue. He hopes to clarify the cellular mechanism that controls inflammation during obesity – a discovery that could improve scientists’ understanding of how fat tissue works, with implications for treating obesity and diabetes.

Fat cells “are critical regulators of glucose metabolism and insulin sensitivity, so understanding how adipocytes work is essential to understanding the pathogenesis of Type 2 diabetes,” he wrote.

The Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine is a leader in training dedicated primary care physicians who are prepared to address the most pervasive medical needs in the state and the nation. Approximately 50 percent of Heritage College alumni practice in primary care and nearly 60 percent practice in Ohio. For more information, please visit our website at  www.ohio.edu/medicine . CARE LEADS HERE .