How did you get into research, why this area?
My parents were physicists and they influenced me quite a bit. I went to their labs as a kid and always thought it was pretty cool doing lab work. That’s when I started thinking, “I should be a scientist”. I also had a great chemistry teacher in high school who got me much more interested in being an experimental scientist. As I got older I found I wanted to focus in human diseases and biochemistry. To this day I have always felt very rewarded and accomplished when I can design a perfect experiment and get good data.
My area of research is obesity and diabetes, with a sub special area on understanding how the fats in our diets get used or stored in various parts of the body. Obesity is a state where body stores too much fat at wrong places, and obesity increases the risks of diabetes and many other diseases.
My project specifically is to answer the question of how the brain KNOWS how much fat is taken into the system -- how does the body know where to deliver the fat and how is this regulated by signals from the brain. I am using a mouse model to study this, and the project is to mutate one molecule in the brain, and by disrupting it changes how the mouse thinks about the food it’s eating. The end result is that the disruption makes the mouse thing that it’s not storing enough fat, so it eats more and stores the fat more than usual and become obese quickly.
Why is this important?
My study through the BIRCWH shows that while both male and female mice gain weight, there is a gender difference. In the female mouse the females gain more weigh when there is no disruption to their normal free living conditions. Human females usually have more fat mass than men who have more lean muscle mass, so there is clinical correlation.
We also see that once disrupted, female mice have more problems with behavioral modifications; specifically they react negatively to isolation, and react very strongly to the limitation of the amounts of food they are getting on a daily basis. This again can relate to human conditions. The path to obesity between male and female is not the same, so we need to understand how different it is and what factors are important.
One factor that I am studying particular is lipid in the brain, which is an understudied area. The brain has a mechanism to protect itself from random entry of molecules into the brain, and because of that there is limited knowledge on how lipids get into the grain. Using my mouse model, I have found one molecule that could be the one that plays an important role in guiding the entry of lipid into important regions of the brain. This is a ground-breaking animal model and many studies could be conducted using this model. So it has the great potential to ultimately lead to important discovery.
What are your hopes and dreams for your research?
The hope is to uncover a new way of managing obesity and diabetes and related diseases by identifying new mechanisms and signaling pathways. If we can understand how the brain senses the lipid signals that control the development obesity, we can actually understand better how and why people gain weight. And because women encounter situations and life circumstances (pregnancy) where weight goes up and down, this could be huge in helping women manage their weight gain and ultimately their entire health.
To learn more about the BIRCWH program at University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, click here: