New Gastrointestinal Research Center explores human body's highway

By Troy Johnson, College of Education, and Carol Nelson, Office of Communications and Marketing



The gastrointestinal tract will never win any beauty contests.

And, despite actress Jamie Lee Curtis' earnest commercial attempts to preach the virtues of yogurt as a remedy for digestive dysfunction, the gastrointestinal tract rarely receives a purposeful introduction into everyday conversation.

When the gastrointestinal tract does become a topic for discussion, it tends to be spoken of in conspiratorial whispers. Or, worse yet, it serves as a punch line and punching bag for comedians plumbing the depths for cheap laughter.

"We're more aware of muscles, nerves and the 'sexier' organs," said David Pascoe, Humana-Germany-Sherman distinguished professor of exercise physiology and director of the Thermal Lab in the College of Education's Department of Kinesiology. "The gut is just there. We forget that it is maybe the glue. None of the other organs can exist without it."

From its beginning to its end, from the mouth to the exit portal we don't dare discuss in polite company, the human gastrointestinal tract stretches anywhere from 20 to 30 feet and includes the esophagus, stomach and small and large intestines. You might wonder why Pascoe and some of his colleagues would be interested in talking about the body's equivalent of plumbing fixtures, but his research interest was piqued by the fact that it's the body's only internal and external organ and serves as a delivery mechanism for hydration, nutrition and medication.

"When the gut isn't happy, we're not happy," he said. "It's the largest immune organ in the body."

Pascoe and other researchers in the Department of Kinesiology and Auburn's College of Veterinary Medicine are now investigating the ways in which this vital system can be kept healthy and happy. Auburn University approved the establishment of the Gastrointestinal Research Center within the Department of Kinesiology, which opened in January. The center will focus on improving understanding of the structures, mechanisms, functions and dysfunctions of the gastrointestinal tract in animals and humans. Impairments of the system can have repercussions in such areas as digestion and nutrition, growth and development, temperature regulation and hydration.

"We started working together about a year ago," said Department of Kinesiology head Mary Rudisill, a Wayne T. Smith distinguished professor of motor behavior. "We realized how much exercise and dehydration and a variety of other factors within our world can impact gastrointestinal health."

The center will bring together faculty members with impressive backgrounds. In addition to Rudisill and Pascoe, a nationally-known researcher in the field of temperature regulation, the center will also draw on the expertise of College of Veterinary Medicine faculty and staff members Timothy Moore, Vitaly Vodyanoy and Iryna Sorokulova. Moore, whose background is in microbiology and the administration of military biological labs, serves as the director of program development for research in Veterinary Medicine. Vodyanoy specializes in high-resolution imagery, probiotics, biophysics, histology and cell membrane function. Sorokulova is an internationally-recognized expert on probiotics.

Vodyanoy has worked to develop an advanced microscopy technique that features increased resolution and a dual mode fluorescence imaging capability. The microscope offers extraordinarily high resolving power at a lower cost, which enables early stage disease detection and real-time imaging of living cellular structures with no sample preparation, in fine detail traditionally offered by electro-microscopes. The high resolution attributes allow for the detection of viruses, which can be approximately 20 nanometers in diameter versus bacteria that can be more than 200 nanometers in diameter.

"The Vitaly microscopic imagery provides our researchers the ability to visualize structural changes related to gut function and relate them to both biochemical markers," Pascoe explained. "Unlike other microscopes with this magnification ability, the Vitaly scope does not require slide preparations that can distort or create artifact to the specimen, and it allows us to investigate live cells from gut samples."

Stress has been shown to have a central and peripheral nervous system effect, promoting not only psychological illness, but also influencing diseases within the intestines. This is where Sorokulova's work comes into play.

"It was shown that the main target of stress is the gastrointestinal tract and gut microflora," she explained. "Beneficial probiotic bacteria have been shown to enhance gastrointestinal barrier function and dampen inflammation in several immune mediated diseases, thereby conferring a health benefit on the host. Our approach involves the use of the beneficial Bacillus strain to prevent and treat the undesirable effects of stress."

Some areas of research interest could include hydration as it relates to athletic performance and medical care, Celiac disease, probiotics and product efficacy. Pascoe and Rudisill said some of the center's research will investigate the possible relationship between gastrointestinal dysfunction and sleep disorders, autism spectrum disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

"We're looking for ways to prevent, treat and recover from issues related to gastrointestinal health," Rudisill said. "We see potential in many areas. This research team has some expertise that no one else in the country can offer. We have the expertise, the know-how and the university support to find the answers to questions that we have about gastrointestinal health."

Pascoe has a gut feeling that the more the center researchers learn, the more they may be able to change the way people think and talk about all matters related to gastrointestinal health.

"It's not the most attractive organ," he said, "but maybe it's time we invite it to the prom."

Last Updated: March 29, 2012

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