August 22, 2008

Wasserman lands MERIT award

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David Wasserman, Ph.D., has received a coveted MERIT Award from the National Institutes of Health. (photo by Dana Johnson)

Wasserman lands MERIT award

Diabetes researcher David Wasserman, Ph.D., has received a coveted MERIT (Method to Extend Research in Time) award from the National Institutes of Health for his research on metabolism.

Less than 5 percent of NIH-funded investigators are selected to receive MERIT awards, which reward consistently high grant performance with up to 10 years of continuous funding without competitive review.

The extended grant duration will “make it possible to conduct high-risk research with a high scientific impact,” said Wasserman.

With the funding, his group will investigate the mechanisms that control carbohydrate and fat metabolism in the liver and the conditions that cause the liver to accumulate fat, an early sign of type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome.

This “fatty liver” is often associated with inflammation, which can disrupt the liver's metabolic functions.

How this happens — and how to stop it — remains unclear. Wasserman's lab has found that exercise protects mice from developing fatty liver.

“People don't think of the liver as being an 'exercise' organ,” he said. “But in fact, when you exercise, oxygen uptake and substrate metabolism by the liver increases.”

Exercise can trigger large fluctuations in the balance of chemical “energy” — molecules known as AMP and ATP — in the liver. Wasserman will examine how an enzyme that regulates energy balance, called AMPK, determines whether substrates like fatty acids and glucose are “burned” (oxidized) or stored in the liver.

Wasserman hopes that a better understanding of this process could lead to the development of drugs or other treatments that promote the oxidation of fats, preventing the damaging fat accumulation in the liver.

Receiving the MERIT award “is a little humbling,” Wasserman said. “The MERIT award is as much a result of the great scientific environment at Vanderbilt as it is my own efforts and the efforts of my laboratory team.”

Wasserman credits the institutional support of the Vanderbilt Diabetes Center, the Mouse Metabolic Phenotyping Center, and colleagues, including his long-time research assistants Deanna Bracy and Freyja James.

“They're remarkably skilled at doing very difficult small animal procedures…and the reason we've been so productive over the years,” he said. “They know that the health of the animals has a direct impact on the quality of the data we obtain. They give the mice the attention and care necessary to ensure that our mice are healthy and unstressed.”

“Having an institution that has so many great resources, great people and such a supportive administration is truly the most important reason that I was chosen for this award. The NIH is willing to make long-term investments into institutions that are as committed to research as Vanderbilt.”

Wasserman is the Ron Santo Chair in Diabetes Research and professor of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics.