Obesity Research Center investigators and core service providers

Investigators at Virginia Commonwealth University work together on obesity-related research projects in the Nutrition Obesity Research Center. Our VCU NORC employs a system-science approach focusing on genetic, behavioral and environmental factors that lead to obesity and on strategies to reverse the development of obesity and obesity-related morbidities. Our VCU NORC provides a fertile environment for translational research that accelerates the application of research advances to the clinic and into the community. The NORC will bring together more than 60 investigators with funded research programs in nutritional science, physical activity and obesity-related basic science, clinical research, clinical practice and community engagement. The cores of the NORC enhance research along this translational continuum and will sharpen our focus on developmental issues within VCU’s clinical research programs in pediatric, adolescent and adult medicine.

Our overall goal is to bring together basic science and clinical investigators to enhance and extend the effectiveness of obesity research at VCU. Our objectives are:

  1. To create an integrated and sustainable infrastructure – the VCU NORC – that is designed to coordinate and foster interdisciplinary basic, clinical and public health research performed by established investigators aimed at reversing the obesity epidemic and improving health
  2. To translate basic obesity research findings into the clinical arena and into our surrounding communities through close interactions and collaboration among investigators so as to create new and unexpected synergies among multidisciplinary investigators by providing shared access to specialized core resources
  3. To provide seed funding for nutrition and obesity-related pilot projects that encourage junior investigators to pursue nutrition/obesity research and to attract senior investigators in other fields to focus on important questions related to the prevention, development and treatment of obesity
  4. To optimize the use of VCU resources to energize our investigators, to facilitate the transfer of basic science findings into clinical trials and to accelerate the transfer of findings from clinical trials into community health care and public health
  5. To train a cadre of students and investigators interested in pursuing obesity research

Edmond Acevedo, Ph.D.
Professor and chair, health and human performance

His primary research focuses on the impact of stress and fitness level on an individual’s health. These interests have led to investigations examining concurrent mental and physical challenges on cardiorespiratory responses and indicators of inflammation and of endothelial wall function. A secondary area of interest is focused on hormonal responses to exercise and their relationship to health and human performance. And finally, a tertiary general focus has been on mental and physiological factors impacting human performance.

Leon Avery, Ph.D., M.B.A.
Professor, physiology and biophysics

Avery studies feeding behavior in the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans.

Keith Baker, Ph.D.
Assistant professor, biochemistry and molecular biology

His current studies focus on the transcriptional regulation of glycolytic pathways by the estrogen receptor-related receptor. Mounting evidence suggests that ERR significantly impacts nearly every aspect of carbohydrate metabolism. Moreover, his team has recently discovered a direct link with ERR to the hypoxia-inducible factor-1a. ERR’s unexpected role in the hypoxic response provides a new avenue by which the HIF-1 pathway may be targeted. In particular, he is interested in understanding the circumstances that dictate ERR collaboration with HIF-1 and how this pairing influences energy expenditure decisions.

Melanie Bean, Ph.D.
Assistant professor, pediatrics

Bean does research in pediatric obesity treatment and prevention, with a particular emphasis in the application of motivational interviewing to clinical interventions.

Gregory Buck, Ph.D.
Director, Center for the Study of Biological Complexity, professor, microbiology and immunology

The major goal of his grant entitled “The Vaginal Microbiome: Disease, Genetics and the Environment” is to define vaginal microbiome in pathological states.

Kai “Annie” Cheang, Pharm.D.
Associate professor, pharmacotherapy and outcomes science

Cheang’s research focuses on the interplay between hormones, insulin resistance and obesity in women’s health.

Meng Cui, Ph.D.
Assistant professor, physiology and biophysics

His main research topic is to understand the molecular mechanisms of sweet taste receptor function.

Sarah Elsea, Ph.D.
Associate professor, pediatrics

Her research interests are molecular and biochemical etiology of genetic syndromes involving developmental delays, behavioral problems, sleep disturbance and obesity, including Smith-Magenis syndrome, Potocki-Lupski syndrome, 2q23 deletion syndrome, 2q37 deletion syndrome and other genomic disorders.

Ronald Evans, Ph.D.
Associate professor and director, health and human performance

His research interests include the role of physical activity in successful weight loss following weight loss surgery, improvements in health-related fitness and cardiovascular health following weight loss surgery, effects of acute and chronic exercise on physical fitness, cardiovascular health and inflammatory cytokine responses in obese populations (adolescent and adult). He is the PI on an American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery Foundation grant entitled “Metabolic and cardiovascular disease risk reduction following gastric bypass surgery: the role of endothelial progenitor cells in vascular health.” The overall goal of this project is to evaluate cardiovascular health changes following weight loss surgery by assessing endothelial progenitor cell mobilization and endothelial function following a maximal bout of acute exercise.

Robert Franco, Ph.D.
Associate professor, health and human performance

His primary research interests include the role of physical activity on endothelial function and adipokine concentration and their relationship to the metabolic syndrome in weight-challenged populations. A secondary area of interest is oxygen consumption kinetics in obese adolescents and patients following gastric bypass surgery. Other areas of interest include skeletal and myocardial alterations associated with myocardial volume overload, including myosin heavy chain distribution and lactate transporters.

David Gater, M.D., Ph.D.
Professor, physical medicine and rehabilitation, chief, spinal cord injury and disorders, Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center

He is PI on a VA RR&D grant entitled “Body Composition Assessment in Spinal Cord Injury.” The specific objectives for the current proposal are to compare several measures of body composition assessment with the gold standard (four-compartment modeling) and to develop regression equations that can be utilized in the clinical setting to estimate risk for diabetes and atherosclerosis.

Chris Gennings, Ph.D.
Professor, biostatistics

She currently has an NIH training grant entitled “Integration of Mixtures Toxicology, Toxicogenomics and Statistics.” The training grant is for one postdoctoral and four predoctoral biostatistics students to work on developing methods associated with mixtures toxicology or toxicogenomics and to collaborate with leading scientists in the field.

Shobha Ghosh, Ph.D.
Professor, internal medicine

Ghosh studies cholesterol ester metabolism in human macrophage foam cells present in atherosclerotic lesions and the development of potential strategies (e.g., targeted gene over-expression or by increasing gene transcription) to induce reverse cholesterol transport resulting in regression of atherosclerotic plaques and reduction in the risk for coronary heart disease, stabilization of vulnerable atherosclerotic plaque by reducing the lipid burden and local inflammation, and the role of lipid mediators and coronary artery smooth muscle cells in regulating vascular inflammation.

Karen Hendricks-Munoz, M.D.
Professor and chief, pediatrics

Her project entitled “Transmission of Maternal Indigenous Bacteria to the Newborn through Kangaroo Mother Care (KMC)” outlines oral and skin commensal colonization patterns associated with preterm infants exposed to Kangaroo Mother Care compared to non-KMC and details the similarity to the mother’s colonization patterns.

Phillip Hylemon, Ph.D.
Professor, microbiology and immunology

Research in Hylemon’s laboratory centers around two major areas related to cell signaling and cancinogenesis in the gastrointestinal system. His team is investigating mechanisms of activation of various signaling pathway by bile acids in primary hepatocytes and other epithelial cells of the gastrointestinal system, and studying the molecular biology of secondary bile acid formation by intestinal anaerobic bacteria and the role of deoxycholic acid and lithocholic acid in promoting colon cancer.

Rakesh Kukreja, Ph.D.
Professor and eminent scholar, internal medicine

Kukreja’s research interests include cellular and molecular mechanisms of ischemia/reperfusion injury and heart failure in normal and Type II diabetic hearts. The major focus is on discovering novel strategies in myocardial protection using state-of-the-art approaches such as preconditioning, phophodiesterase-5 inhibitors (e.g., Viagra), micro RNAs and cell and gene therapy.

Jessica LaRose, PhD

Assistant Professor, Social and Behavioral Health

Nicole Lee, Ph.D.
Instructor, social work

The goals of her grant entitled “Oasis Catch Healthy Habits” are to increase the amount of physical activity as well as fruits and vegetables consumed by adults 50 and older and children in grades K-5. The secondary goal is to promote intergenerational communication.

Vijay Lyall, Ph.D.
Associate professor, physiology and biophysics

His program aims to understand the basic physiological mechanisms involved in the transduction of salty and sour taste at the receptor level in the taste receptor cells. His team is interested in identifying the receptors/ion channels located in the apical membrane of taste cells that detect the presence of Na+, K+, NH4+ and H+ ions in the external environment of taste cells and the downstream intracellular signaling effectors in taste cells that lead to the activation of taste nerves. They use an integrated approach involving several independent techniques to investigate taste transduction mechanisms, and make electrophysiological recordings directly from the taste sensory nerves. At the cellular level, they directly monitor ion fluxes across the apical membrane of polarized taste cells using both conventional and laser scanning confocal imaging methods to follow changes in the intracellular concentration of ions and other effectors that may change during chemosensory transduction. Using immunocytochemical methods the team identifies specific receptors/ion channels and transporters in taste cell membranes. Finally, using molecular biological methods they clone specific receptors/ion channels and decipher their sequence, and, by transfecting into a heterologous cell line, e.g. HEK 293 cell line, they study the function of the expressed receptors/ion channels using imaging and electrophysiological techniques. Using this approach the team has identified TRPV1t, a variant of the pain receptor, as the amiloride-insensitive salt taste receptor in the taste cells in the anterior tongue. This has led to the discovery of several interesting compounds and drugs that modulate TRPV1t activity and thus can be used as potential salt taste enhancers or suppressers. In addition, they have identified that during acid stimulation a decrease in intracellular pH of taste cells is the proximate signal for sour taste transduction, and that the downstream activation of basolateral Na+-H+-exchanger-1 (NHE-1) in taste cells is the major adaptation mechanism for sour taste.

Suzanne Mazzeo, Ph.D.
Associate professor, psychology

Mazzeo’s research interests are in the areas of eating disorders and obesity, specifically the interaction of genetic and environmental factors on eating behaviors.

Briana Mezuk, Ph.D.
Assistant professor, epidemiology and community health

Her research interests are three-fold: (1) To understand the interface between behavior and biology in order to integrate social, psychological and biological approaches to understanding health and illness over the life course, (2) to explore the multiple pathways linking psychiatric and medical comorbidity, particularly chronic conditions such as diabetes, and (3) to inform interventions which reflect an integrative approach to health to effectively reduce the burden of mental disorders.

Nitai Mukhopadhyay, Ph.D.
Assistant professor, biostatistics

His special interests are in Bayesian model selection, gene interaction and network.

John Nestler, M.D.
William Branch Porter Professor and Chair, internal medicine

The focus of his research is the role of insulin resistance in the polycystic ovary syndrome and includes: 1) insulin regulation of human sex steroid (ovarian, adrenal and placental) metabolism – with a focus on the role of insulin resistance in the pathogenesis of polycystic ovary syndrome, 2) treatment of the polycystic ovary syndrome with insulin-sensitizing drugs, and 3) metabolic risks (type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease) of polycystic ovary syndrome.

Yi Ning, Ph.D.
Assistant professor, epidemiology and community health

Ning’s current research is clinical epidemiology of cancer and obesity with a focus on the interface of nutritional, biochemical and genetic factors in the initiation and progression of disease. His research interests are broadly classified into four areas: (1) nutritional epidemiology; (2) the links of metabolic disorders and development and survival of cancer; (3) early life precursors of obesity and diabetes; and (4) the role of nutritional factors in particular vitamins/minerals in the development and progression of chronic diseases. His research interests also include epidemiology methods, systematic review and public health nutrition. He is the PI of the Day and Night Lifestyle and Cancer Survival Study (Day and Night Study) which assesses daily dietary/lifestyle risk factors, sleep quality and biological markers in relation to quality of life of cancer survivors.

Jo Robins, Ph.D.
Assistant professor, nursing

Robin’s research focuses on cardiovascular risk reduction in women with increased waist circumference and obesity, with a biobehavioral emphasis on the mechanisms underlying inflammation and cardiovascular risk. The team is investigating tai chi as an intervention to decrease risk.

Roy Sabo, Ph.D.
Assistant professor, biostatistics

Sabo’s research interests include clustered/familial data analysis, repeated measure/longitudinal data analysis, multivariate/multiple response data analysis and endocrinology, as well as the analysis of complex mixtures and the effects of chemical exposure on hormones/endocrine system.

Arun Sanyal, M.D.
Charles M. Caravati Chair in Gastroenterology, internal medicine

His research interests include internal medicine, gastroenterology and hepatology, liver fibrosis, portal hypertension, transhepatic portosystemic shunts, NAFLD and NASH.

Marilyn Stern, Ph.D.
Professor, psychology and pediatrics

Her primary professional focus has been in child health psychology, with specific interests in adolescents with cancer, communication and transition to survivorship, as well as developing interventions to reduce childhood and adolescent obesity and the vulnerable child syndrome. Most recently, she has played an integral role in the establishment of a multidisciplinary clinical research program through the VCU Department of Pediatrics targeting obese adolescents and their families.

Jerome F. Strauss, M.D., Ph.D.
Dean, School of Medicine

Strauss focuses on conducting research on adverse pregnancy outcomes in African Americans, stimulating new research in this area, working with community stakeholders to conduct and evaluate the impact of a community health education intervention while promoting participation of minority populations in research and incorporating a research training component for minority students into community engagement/outreach efforts. He also does research to identify the genetic basis and pathophysiology of polycystic ovary syndrome. This entails a multipronged approach including family-based studies of linkage and analysis of the function of human granulosa and thecal cells from normal ovaries and ovaries of women with PCOS.

Shumei Sun, Ph.D.
Professor and chair, biostatistics

Her research seeks to help understand the natural history of the human growth, body composition and risk factors for cardiovascular and related diseases in the human life span and to indirectly improve the quality of life through health promotion and disease prevention.

Kazuaki Takabe, M.D., Ph.D.
Assistant professor, surgery

Takabe is a surgeon-scientist who conducts both basic and clinical research in a broad range of topics including breast, the gastrointestinal tract including the liver and surgery. His main basic research interest is on the roles of Sphingosine-1 phosphate in cancer, which was discovered to be a novel lipid signaling molecule by Sarah Spiegel, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at VCU. Takabe’s laboratory discovered the mechanism of how S1P, which is generated inside breast cancer cells, is exported outside to perform “inside-out” signaling, and recently reported the role of S1P in lymphangiogenesis and metastasis.

David Wheeler, Ph.D.
Assistant professor, biostatistics

Wheeler’s primary research activities are in the areas of spatial epidemiology and cancer control and prevention. His current research interests include modeling spatial-temporal variability in cancer risk and applying statistical methods to identify and predict risk factors for cancer. His recent research projects include examining the association between ultraviolet exposure and risk of cancer in the AARP Diet and Health Study, modeling spatial-temporal risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma in the NCI-SEER NHL study and developing a data mining approach to predict occupational exposure assessments for diesel exhaust in the New England Bladder Cancer Study.

Edmond “Trey” Wickham, M.D., M.P.H.
Assistant professor, internal medicine and pediatrics

His clinical expertise and research interests include obesity, insulin resistance, the metabolic syndrome, polycystic ovary syndrome, Type-2 diabetes and other metabolic complications of obesity in both children and adults.

Diane Wilson, Ed.D., R.D.
Associate professor, general internal medicine and Massey Cancer Center; affiliate in epidemiology and community health

Her areas of research include nutrition and public health with particular focus on the role of diet and exercise in cancer risk reduction and community-based participatory research to improve health and prevent weight gain in underserved women.

Young Jai You, Ph.D.
Assistant professor, biochemistry and molecular biology

Her lab investigates the cellular and molecular mechanisms of appetite control in a simple model system, Caenorhabditis elegans. In the past few years her team has discovered that, just as in mammals, C. elegans appetite is promoted by hunger and suppressed by full-feeding; when starved, worms become hungry and increase feeding motions through a muscarinic acetylcholine receptor MAP kinase signaling pathway. When they are fed an excess of food after fasting, they are satiated, stop feeding and become quiescent through insulin, TGFb and cGMP signaling pathways. Increasing feeding motion by muscarinic signaling and decreasing appetite by signaling such as insulin show similarities not only in behavior but also in molecular mechanisms for the response to food, suggesting strong conservation between mammals and worms in controlling appetite.

Based on this conservation, her team aims to establish in C. elegans a genetic model system to study appetite control. First, the team will examine molecular mechanisms of appetite control by TGFb and cGMP signals; despite the molecular conservation of TGFb and cGMP between mammals and worms, their functions in food intake and appetite control are poorly understood in both. Second, her team will examine the role of metabolism and fat storage in appetite control.

The team anticipates that molecular mechanisms will be fundamentally similar to those of mammals, but simpler and therefore easier to unravel in worms. Furthermore, the powerful genetic tools available in the worm will allow rapid elucidation of new pathways, whose relevance to mammalian behavior can subsequently be tested.