Auburn’s Boshell diabetes research program brings together faculty in fight against deadly disease

Published: November 18, 2021
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As America recognizes National Diabetes Month in November, Auburn University scientists are devoted year-round to researching this debilitating disease that affects one in 10 Americans.

Auburn’s Boshell Diabetes and Metabolic Diseases Research Program has 54 faculty members from 10 academic units across campus researching causes and treatments for diabetes and obesity-related health issues, principally focusing on the cardiac, neurological and metabolic aspects.

“We have excellent faculty seeking to improving the lives of all people with type 1 and type 2 diabetes,” said Professor Robert Judd, chair of the Boshell program and head of the Department of Anatomy, Physiology and Pharmacology in the College of Veterinary Medicine. “Our research will help people and pets, as dogs and cats can suffer from diabetes.”

Diabetes and obesity are associated with serious health conditions, including hypertension, coronary heart disease, stroke, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, certain types of cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, asthma and musculoskeletal disease.

“We have strong interdisciplinary collaborations among professors who are researching the prevention, cure and management of diabetes and its complications,” Judd said. “We actively work together at Auburn and with faculty at other institutions to study the parallel epidemics of obesity and diabetes.”

Auburn’s program was established in 2001 through an endowment from the Birmingham-based Diabetes Trust Fund in honor of its founder, Dr. Buris R. Boshell, a 1947 graduate of Auburn, then Alabama Polytechnic Institute.

According to 2020 statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 34 million Americans have diabetes. Another 88 million adults are prediabetic, pushing the total number of those in danger of being afflicted with the disease to more than 122 million, or nearly one in every three people.

Examples of Auburn’s diabetes research include:

Rajesh Amin, Associate Professor, Drug Discovery and Development, Harrison School of Pharmacy

Amin’s research is focused upon drug discovery for metabolic-related diseases, including energy dysregulation associated with Alzheimer’s disease and liver disease. He has also teamed up with Feng Li and Tom Denney of Auburn’s MRI Center for developing novel targeted delivery of compounds to hepatic stellate cells for mitigating liver fibrosis.

Chris Easley, Professor, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, College of Sciences and Mathematics

Easley is leading a research team seeking to enhance biological measuring capabilities to better understand diabetes, heart disease and obesity. They are developing high-tech devices that could measure insulin or other hormones, like glucagon, in real time as a person takes insulin or a diabetes drug. The team is specifically studying how fat responds to stimuli like food or drugs, how fat secretes hormones and how that happens on a dynamic, short-time scale.

Emily Graff, Assistant Professor, Department of Pathobiology, College of Veterinary Medicine

Graff’s lab is looking at ways to help obese cats and humans. She says there are many similarities between human and feline obesity, such as insulin resistance, hepatic steatosis (fatty liver), reduced life span and cancer. There are distinct differences between cats and humans, as well. For example, cats do not develop clinical atherosclerosis associated with metabolic syndrome, which contributes to heart disease and stroke and is a major cause of mortality in people.

Michael Greene, Associate Professor, Department of Nutrition, Dietetics and Hospitality Management, College of Human Sciences; director, Metabolic Phenotyping Laboratory

Greene’s research is focused on metabolic diseases associated with obesity, including liver disease and colon cancer. The work in his laboratory spans from performing whole-body metabolism studies to RNA sequencing analysis. He is also collaborating with Elizabeth Lipke, professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, to develop new models, such as 3D-engineered tissue cultures, to examine the link between obesity/prediabetes and colon cancer.

Ramesh Jeganathan, Professor, Department of Nutrition, Dietetics and Hospitality Management, College of Human Sciences

Jeganathan’s research is focused on investigating the molecular links between type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease, emphasizing aspects that have potential clinical significance. His lab explores genes, molecules and cellular processes that could cause and promote Alzheimer’s disease in type 2 diabetes patients. The aim is to discover novel agents to disrupt the connection.

Robert Judd, Professor, Department of Anatomy, Physiology and Pharmacology, College of Veterinary Medicine

Judd’s research is focused on the impact of obesity on adipose tissue physiology and how this newly recognized endocrine organ becomes dysfunctional during obesity development. In collaborative studies with Amol Suryawanshi of the College of Veterinary Medicine and Joseph Brewer of the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine, Judd is expanding his research into the immunology of adipose tissue. Doug White of the College of Human Sciences is also studying adipose tissue physiology, looking at the role of leptin in type 1 diabetes.

Amarjit Mishra, Assistant Professor, Department of Pathobiology, College of Veterinary Medicine

Mishra aims to understand more about the regulatory pathways involved in airway inflammation. The Laboratory of Lung Inflammation, led by Mishra, is also interested in metabolic cues that coordinate immune cell activation and differentiation. Learning more about the link between obesity, inflammation and asthma is important for developing novel therapeutic treatments to prevent and treat asthma in people with obesity.

Ya-Xiong Tao, Professor, Department of Anatomy, Physiology and Pharmacology, College of Veterinary Medicine

Tao is studying naturally occurring mutations in two receptors expressed in the brain, melanocortin-3 and melanocortin-4 receptors. Both are involved in regulating energy homeostasis, with the melanocortin-3 receptor regulating fat storage and the melanocortin-4 receptor regulating both food intake and energy expenditure. His studies are seeking a better understanding of obesity from a genetic standpoint and potential therapeutics of monogenic obesity.

Geetha Thangiah, Associate Professor, Department of Nutrition, Dietetics and Hospitality Management, College of Human Sciences

Thangiah is studying disparities in childhood obesity between African Americans and the white population, with the long-term goal of improving the health of minorities by identifying appropriate interventions. The incidence of childhood obesity varies widely among races/ethnicity, with higher rates in African Americans (24%), making it one of the most profound disparities. Thangiah is looking at how socioeconomic status might influence eating habits, diet, parental beliefs, oxidative stress, microbiome and epigenetics.

The Boshell program also hosts an annual Boshell Research Day that brings in fellow researchers from around the country to share their research and develop new collaborations.

“We held our 13th annual event in September, with more than 175 scientists and supporters participating,” Judd said.

Financial donations to help support the Boshell Diabetes and Metabolic Diseases Research Program can be made online. The program also has the Jim Fyffe Diabetes Research Fund that helps support graduate students conducting diabetes research projects. Fyffe was a longtime Auburn football announcer who died in 2003 due to complications from diabetes. Information about both funds is available by contacting the College of Veterinary Medicine Advancement Office at giving@vetmed.auburn.edu or 334-844-1446.

More Information

Help support the Boshell Diabetes and Metabolic Diseases Research Program

Financial donations to help support the Boshell Diabetes and Metabolic Diseases Research Program can be made online or by contacting the College of Veterinary Medicine Advancement Office at giving@vetmed.auburn.edu or 334-844-1446.

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