Health

The National Institutes of Health has awarded $16.4 million to researchers at the University of Louisville to study the impact the environment has on obesity and diabetes. U of L officials announced the award Monday.

Officials said research will be conducted on how air pollution could be connected to diabetes, and whether the dietary supplement carnosine can protect people from air pollution.

Aruni Bhatnagar, director of the U of L Diabetes and Obesity Center, said the funding will also be used to help researchers explore diabetes and obesity as cardiovascular issues. 

“Diabetes and obesity are the leading cause of public health problems within the country as well as within the state,” said Bhatnagar. “Heart disease is one of the main consequences of diabetes and obesity. In fact, people who have diabetes, about 70 percent of them die from heart disease.”

Matthew Nystoriak, an assistant professor at the Diabetes and Obesity Center, will receive funds to continue research into how a blood vessel in the heart signals to the body that it needs more blood and oxygen.

“We want to know how the heart tells blood vessels that it needs more blood,” Nystoriak said. “They have to talk to each other basically. And that’s what this project works on.”

That basic scientific knowledge will tell scientists how that relationship works in a healthy person who, for instance, might be running. The heart needs more oxygen and blood during exercise, and while scientists know that, they do not know how the blood knows to pump harder into the heart.

Nystoriak said with this information, researchers could then study what goes wrong when a person is sick with a condition like diabetes. People with diabetes are more likely to die of heart disease or stroke — about twice the rate as people who do not have diabetes. But researchers don’t really know why.

“We think that there’s some disruption that occurs and that could actually lead to problems in the heart,” Nystoriak said. “If we discover the cellular mechanisms, then we can target those and actually increase blood flow when it’s needed. And that could actually prevent or possibly even reverse some of the cardiac problems that you see with certain diseases like diabetes.”

Gregory Postel, vice president for health affairs at U of L, said part of the award will be used for ongoing research.

“It’s one thing in research to obtain an award and get initial funding for it, it’s another thing to be then able to show success to the National Institutes of Health from where the funding originated, such that they will continue to fund it again,” Postel said. “And this is in an era of very competitive funding. Lots and lots of competition for these awards.”

Lisa Gillespie is WFPL's Health and Innovation Reporter.