Aug. 23, 2006 | Philip Kern, M.D., a nationally known obesity researcher at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS), has received a highly selective MERIT Award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), funding his research into the chemical mechanisms of fat cells with up to $2.79 million over 10 years.
Only a small percentage of grant applicants receive the Method to Extend Research in Time (MERIT) Award, intended to recognize long-term research success with stable funding. Kern, a professor of endocrinology in the UAMS College of Medicine and associate chief of staff for research in the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System (CAVHS), is just the second UAMS researcher to receive a MERIT Award.
The NIH’s National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) selected Kern for the award when he sought renewal of a long-standing grant for studying an enzyme in fat tissue responsible for removing fat from the blood. Kern received a five-year grant worth about $225,000 per year, with the MERIT Award providing an expedited renewal for up to five additional years, for a total of $2.79 million.
“We are pleased to see Dr. Kern rewarded for his continued research, which could lead to new treatments for diabetes and obesity,” said UAMS Chancellor I. Dodd Wilson, M.D. “One reason this award is special is that researchers cannot apply for MERIT Awards but are selected by the NIH based on consistent and excellent contributions to science.”
“This MERIT Award is another indicator of the quality of researchers on the faculty at UAMS,” said UAMS College of Medicine Dean E. Albert Reece, M.D., Ph.D., M.B.A. “Dr. Kern’s work underscores how new medical treatments often start with basic science research.”
Kern’s research involves numerous aspects of fat and muscle metabolism and the relationship of several fat and muscle gene products to obesity, diabetes and lipid metabolism. Understanding those mechanisms could lead to new treatments. More than nine percent of Arkansas’ population has diabetes and obesity is a main contributor to its development.
“It is an honor to receive a MERIT Award,” Kern said. “The grant allows us to delve further into the fundamental processes of obesity at the cellular level.”
The research examines the cellular regulation of lipoprotein lipase, the enzyme that clears fat from the blood and puts it in fat cells. Fat accumulation in the blood leads to high cholesterol, one of the major risk factors for heart disease. Fat accumulation in tissue leads to obesity.
Kern will next work to develop a model for studying the enzyme’s impact on conditions leading to type 2 diabetes. He will test whether a high level of lipoprotein in fat tissue will cause the tissue to “stuff itself” with lipid (fat) – pulling fat in from other tissues.
Kern said it is the accumulation of fat in other tissues such as muscle and liver that produces the insulin resistance that leads to type 2 diabetes.
“Pulling fat from other tissues may unlink insulin resistance – and thus diabetes – from obesity,” Kern said. “The increase of fat in the fat cells caused by the lipase enzyme could make an animal fatter, but less prone to diabetes. Treatments aimed to increase fat tissue could then lead to better treatments for type 2 diabetes.”
In 2005, Kern and other UAMS researchers received a $2.2 million NIH grant for a clinical trial related to the accumulation of fat in muscle tissue. The researchers hope to identify the cellular mechanisms that cause a pre-diabetic condition (impaired glucose tolerance) and development of insulin resistant, type 2 diabetes. Kern currently has research grants totaling about $715,000 annually.
In addition to research, Kern created and has been medical director for the UAMS Weight Control Program, an individualized approach to correct and control chronic adult obesity. The program, started in 1997, received national attention after one client, Gov. Mike Huckabee, lost more than 100 pounds.
UAMS is the state’s only comprehensive academic health center, with five colleges, a graduate school, a medical center, six centers of excellence and a statewide network of regional centers. UAMS has about 2,320 students and 690 medical residents. It is the state’s largest public employer with more than 9,300 employees, including nearly 1,000 physicians who provide medical care to patients at UAMS, Arkansas Children’s Hospital and the VA Medical Center. UAMS and its affiliates have an economic impact in Arkansas of $4.5 billion a year. For more information, visit www.uams.edu.