Research at Nebraska 2019-2020 Report
Janos Zempleni is leader of the Nebraska Center for the Prevention of Obesity Diseases. The research center recently received an $11 million extension grant from the National Institutes of Health to continue five more years of research. Janos is pictured in his lab. October 3, 2019. Photo by Craig Chandler / University Communication.

Targeting Obesity, Related Diseases at Molecular Level

When the Nebraska Center for the Prevention of Obesity Diseases through Dietary Molecules launched five years ago, its director never imagined how much it would benefit Nebraska.

Then Janos Zempleni added up the numbers: earning nearly $100 million in external funding, about $36 for every dollar the university invested; supporting the careers of numerous junior faculty; and filling a vital research gap with a new core facility for faculty and industry.

“By (National Institutes of Health) standards, this is exceptional,” said Zempleni, Willa Cather Professor of Molecular Nutrition.

NPOD’s success garnered an $11 million renewal grant for another five years from NIH’s Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence program. An $11 million COBRE grant originally established the center in 2014. COBRE funds health-related research and fosters faculty development and research infrastructure.

NPOD aims to become a leader in preventing obesity and obesity-related diseases, including Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, by understanding processes at the molecular level.

Center research is yielding new insights. For example, Dustin Yates, associate professor of animal science, has uncovered predispositions toward obesity and metabolic disorders that occur during fetal development and a simple solution to prevent it.

He credits NPOD’s mentorship, funding and its Biomedical and Obesity Research Core facility, which conducts analyses and other services that are difficult to outsource.

“The national trends for obesity continue to be really bad.”

Janos Zempleni

“The research core provides a lot of services that I don’t have the ability to do on my own, so we get a bigger picture of what’s going on,” Yates said.

Center collaborations also helped Juan Cui, associate professor of computer science and engineering, develop MicroRNA Discovery, a web-based platform that allows researchers to analyze vast numbers of nucleotide sequences, which may speed screening for cancers and other diseases.

With renewed funding, Zempleni is concentrating on turning research into human health treatments by expanding relationships with University of Nebraska Medical Center and UNL faculty, including those in public health and psychology.

“The national trends for obesity continue to be really bad,” Zempleni said. “Our overall concept is to come up with strategies that are consumer friendly.”

+ Additional content for Targeting Obesity, Related Diseases at Molecular Level

Nebraska news release: $11M grant launches obesity center’s next phase

Media mention: NU wins $11 million for team of professors studying obesity’s complexities (Omaha World Herald, 10/14/2019)

Media mention: NU-led obesity research center receives $11M more of NIH funding (Lincoln Journal Star, 10/14/2019)

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