June 29, 2004

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Contact: Dan Lara, University Relations, (785) 864-8855.

KU researchers win NSF grant to study link between nutrients and disease

LAWRENCE -- Two University of Kansas and four Arizona State University researchers have received an almost $1.6 million grant from the National Science Foundation to study how certain nutrients affect the development of disease in humans and animals.

Their research in this area will focus on a new scientific discipline known as "ecological stoichiometry." It's an emerging area of research that looks, in part, at how nutrients interact with disease. The goal of the study is to discover how an understanding of nutrition can complement current medical procedures for dealing with various pathogens, according to Val Smith, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at KU.

"This grant is very exciting," Smith said. "I'm interested in learning how the chemistry of the world around us influences its ecology. And I'm very interested in learning what occurs once an organism becomes infected. As living beings, we exist in an environment that potentially may expose us to many different pathogens."

The grant will cover four years of research, Smith said. Marilyn Smith, research associate professor in microbiology, molecular genetics and immunology at the KU Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan., and Val Smith's spouse, is the other KU researcher involved with the grant.

Val Smith will work with a diverse set of disease agents that may include experimenting with viruses, bacteria, protozoa, fungi and even cancer cells. He will focus on the effects of three principal nutrients on the disease process: iron, phosphate and glutamine, an amino acid.

"There are three potential outcomes when a person is exposed to a pathogen," Smith said. "First, the person may not become infected. Second, the person develops a short-term infection but gets better. Third, the person develops a long-term infection or chronic disease."

The goal, he said, is to determine how dietary nutrients affect both the growth of pathogens and the ultimate outcome of pathogen exposure. In doing so, he can find out what nutritional conditions will lead to the first outcome, which is the best one.

For example, many older Americans may remember when conventional wisdom told them to take iron supplements to combat iron deficiency. However, recent research suggests that too much iron in the diet might sometimes supply a key nutrient that is required for the development of disease, Smith said.

His colleague, Eugene Weinberg, a professor emeritus at Indiana University, has researched the role of iron in disease for two decades.

Smith earned bachelor's degrees in biology and chemistry from KU and his doctorate in ecology from the University of Minnesota. Marilyn Smith also earned bachelor's degrees in microbiology and chemistry from KU and a doctorate in microbiology from Minnesota.

The four Arizona State researchers involved in the study are Yang Kuang, professor of mathematics; James J. Elser, professor of life sciences; John D. Nagy, adjunct professor of life sciences; and Timothy Newman, associate professor of physics.

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