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CU Department of Medicine’s 35-Year ‘Utility Player’ Recognized as Outstanding Clinical Investigator

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CU’s Robert Eckel has spent his career studying lipid and carbohydrate metabolism, with the twin goals of reducing obesity and preventing heart disease.

Robert H. Eckel, MD has spent over 35 years at the University of Colorado as a physician and researcher, performing clinical and basic science research focused on lipid and carbohydrate metabolism, and how it relates to energy balance and body weight regulation on the one hand, and cardiovascular disease prevention on the other.

Eckel, who describes himself as a “utility player,” is a Professor of Medicine (Division of Endocrinology, Metabolism and Diabetes; Division of Cardiology), Professor of Physiology and Biophysics and the Charles A. Boettcher II Chair in Atherosclerosis at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus; he also directs the Lipid Clinic at University of Colorado Hospital. He is a past president of the American Heart Association (only the second endocrinologist to serve in this role).

In 2016, Eckel will receive the Endocrine Society’s Outstanding Clinical Investigator Award, which honors an internationally recognized clinical investigator who has contributed significantly to understanding the pathogenesis and therapy of endocrine and metabolic diseases. The award will be presented at ENDO 2016, the Endocrine Society’s 98th Annual Meeting & Expo in Boston, MA from April 1-4, 2016.

“Bob Eckel is one of the main reasons why I am in academic endocrinology,” said Bryan R. Haugen, MD, Head of the Division of Endocrinology, Metabolism and Diabetes at CU. “He has extraordinary expertise, policy experience, and passion directed at the global challenges of obesity and cardiovascular disease that make him highly deserving of this award from the Endocrine Society.”

Career highlights:

In 1982, Eckel and his colleagues were among the first researchers internationally to use the “euglycemic clamp” technique (developed to examine insulin sensitivity), to study the metabolism of lipids and lipoproteins.

In 1987, his work examined how weight reduction impacts lipid/lipoprotein metabolism, finding that levels of a key fat-storing enzyme increase with weight loss, setting the stage for weight regain.

In 2011, in the first randomized controlled trial of liposuction surgery, his team found that the fat tissue removed from the lower bodies of non-obese patients returned within one year (concentrated in the upper body).

In 2012, he discovered that response to a high-carb diet during a two-week metabolic study predicted weight gain over the next four years, indicating that an individual’s metabolic response to carbohydrates may play a more important role in weight maintenance than fat intake.

“I met Bob about 25 years ago when he was head of the CU General Clinical Research Center and I was a member of a site visit team,” said David A. Schwartz, MD, Robert W. Schrier Chair of Medicine at CU. “Bob continues to demonstrate the outstanding vision and enthusiasm for science that he did when we first met, and remains a role model for all physicians aspiring to excel in science.”

“A place to be creative”

Eckel joined the faculty at the CU School of Medicine in 1979 after earning his MD from the University of Cincinnati and completing a residency at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a fellowship at the University of Washington. “I got bit by the academic bug,” says Eckel. “And then I came here, and I’ve been here now for 35 plus years.” In fact, in 2011 he turned down an opportunity to head the cardiovascular disease franchise at Merck.

“In an academic medical center you’re surrounded by very influential and effective thought leaders in various fields. The academic environment is just an environment that’s conducive to hypothesis generation and learning so much from people who are in the know. It’s a place to be creative.”

“Bob was the first person I met when I was being recruited to Colorado in 2006, and it’s not inaccurate to say that he was one of the reasons the recruitment was successful,” said Peter Buttrick, MD, Head of the Division of Cardiology at CU. “His enthusiasm for collaborative science and for a team approach to complex clinical care was palpable and inspirational. His reputation as a thought leader in cardiology was (and is) enormous. He is both a national and an institutional treasure.”

Lipids on the brain

As for his current research, Eckel is focusing on the role of lipids and lipoproteins in the brain, and is collaborating with several CU neuroscientists.

“The brain senses fat – that wasn’t thought to be true, even a few years ago,” Eckel enthuses. “The brain lives on glucose, although fats can be used under certain more extreme circumstances. We’ve shown, in a genetically modified mouse, if we knock out a lipid processing protein in the brain we get obesity, cognitive impairment, and changes to the brain’s fatty acid composition. The idea that lipids are delivered to the brain through the circulation, not all made in the brain, and that these lipid delivery systems can be involved in causing downstream effects if that process is inadequate really opens the door to big questions: how important is lipid sensing in the brain, and what controls it? What are the downstream signals that relate to cognitive function, body weight regulation, food intake, insulin action and beyond? This has been an exciting new area, and a space no one’s been in with much detail until now.”

Eckel’s initial findings on this topic were published in 2011, with subsequent related manuscripts in the years since, and additional papers under review.

“Science is so very humbling”

“One thing about science that has always been important for me to realize is that I’m an impatient kind of guy – as a clinician I want to get to the diagnosis promptly and get the patient treated successfully as soon as possible. But science is slow – it’s really a very patient and time-consuming area that requires careful and precise measurements and validation to move forward.  And finally, science is so very humbling – the more you learn, the more you realize you need to learn.”