The Board of Trustees of the Morgridge Institute for Research has approved a new Morgridge focus area in metabolism, a growing research field with enormous potential to treat or reverse a broad spectrum of human diseases.
The new research thrust will build on the Morgridge Institute’s unifying theme of “studying biology across the lifespan,” and will enhance a thriving metabolism research community at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Commonly referred to as the “chemistry of life,” metabolism is the process by which the body uses food and oxygen to produce the energy and chemicals needed for essential functions and processes that constitute life. While diabetes and obesity may be the most well known disorders tied to metabolism, other disorders affected by imbalances in metabolism include problems in aging, brain and neural development, cardiovascular disease, immunology and cancer.
“We see disturbances in metabolic pathways playing a key role in almost every type of disease,” says Brad Schwartz, CEO of the Morgridge Institute. “In some experimental systems where metabolic changes have been reversed, we have seen disease conditions improve. Going forward, metabolism research is very likely to yield a great many important discoveries in biology and medicine.”
Schwartz notes there is strong excitement on campus about bringing more cohesion to campus research groups studying metabolism, and establishing a new strategic focus for talent and infrastructure investments. More than 80 people attended a spring 2014 symposium that helped shape the current proposal, which will strengthen metabolism activities both campus-wide and within Morgridge.
A steering committee chaired by Morgridge Associate Director James Dahlberg is assessing current resource needs and recruitment efforts in metabolism across many UW-Madison disciplines. The UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health, the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, and the Office of the Provost are partners in the initiative.
“Although there are many UW-Madison labs carrying out metabolic research, there is not a lot of integration of these efforts,” says Alan Attie, the Jack Gorski Professor of Biochemistry and metabolism steering committee member. “This has placed a heavy burden on individual laboratories to be self-sufficient. By building community and identifying areas of common strengths, needs and overlapping interests, we hope to build infrastructure and create collaborative programs that can compete for larger research grants.”
As an example, Attie cites the success of the Metabolic Phenotyping Center at the University of Michigan. Launched after three years of planning and significant investment, Attie says the center has been “transformative” at Michigan in helping scientists collaborate on new research directions. “We believe the model could be equally transformative for UW-Madison,” he says.
Rozalyn Anderson, assistant professor of medicine who studies aging and caloric restriction, says the initiative will help establish important new directions in the next 5-10 years.
“One of the critical components in any programmatic effort is strong leadership and the ability to consolidate resources,” Anderson says. “The new initiative will bring researchers from a variety of departments and divisions together with a single vision of enhancing metabolism research on campus. Focused investment in technologies and areas of potential development will keep UW-Madison at the cutting edge.”
The institute intends to hire investigators in several distinct metabolic areas, with the goal of maximizing cross-collaboration. The first hiring step this fall will be to recruit a successful mid-career metabolism scientist to serve as director of the metabolism focus. Future research hires will be both in wet lab and computational focus areas.
The Morgridge Institute for Research is a private, nonprofit research institute dedicated to improving human health through interdisciplinary biomedical research, in partnership with UW-Madison. With the June 17 board approval, metabolism will be the latest of five strategic research focus areas at Morgridge, including regenerative biology, virology, medical engineering and high-throughput computing.