History

The most recent period, focusing on obesity and type 2 diabetes, represents a major expansion of the research base of the department in response to the epidemic of obesity and type 2 diabetes affecting most of the western world. Dr. Weinsier was among the first to recognize the severity of the problem and to promote research on abnormalities of energy metabolism and body composition involved in the causation and development of obesity.

The enormously complex matters of the regulation of energy expenditure and the understanding of the multiple co-morbidities of obesity appealed to him as one of the major intellectual challenges confronting today's medicine. Dr. Weinsier, who succeeded Dr. Butterworth as chair of the department from 1988 until 1999, was able to remarkably expand his research during and after his chairmanship until his illness prematurely terminated his productive life in late 2002. From 1999 until mid 2003, when W. Timothy Garvey, M.D., assumed the chairmanship of the department, this position was held on an interim basis first by Dr. Prince and later by Michael C. Brooks, Ed.D., in his capacity as associate dean of the School of Health Professions.

Dr. Weinsier’s research on the role of inadequate physical activity in the pathogenesis of obesity led him to establish a very productive interaction with exercise physiologists working in the Department of Physical Education, in particular with Gary R. Hunter, Ph.D., a professor in the School of Education at UAB. The need to measure energy expenditure in humans, both during rest and during physical activity, led in mid-1991 to the construction with Dr. Krumdieck of a room calorimeter and to the recruitment in 1993 of Mr. Robert M. Petri, an engineer who refined the design of this instrument and is still responsible for its operation.

Early work on methodologies for the determination of body composition was carried out by Dr. Mohammad A. Khaled, a Ph.D. biophysicist who joined the department in 1984. He developed non-invasive methods for body composition measurements based on nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometry and Fourrier-transform infrared spectrometry and invented a dual-frequency instrument to measure bioimpedance particularly useful to estimate hydration in children. He continues working along these lines and is very active in international nutrition programs in the Indian subcontinent.

In 1993, Dr. Roland brought to the department Michael Goran, Ph.D., whose expertise in childhood obesity and in doubly-labeled water for the free-living estimation of energy expenditure by isotope-ratio mass-spectrometry meant great improvements in the research capabilities of the department. Dr. Goran was appointed director of the Energy Metabolism Research Unit in 1994 and in this capacity recruited three new faculty. Dr. Tim R. Nagy, a Ph.D. physiological zoologist with interest in energy metabolism in animal models, mitochondrial energy economy, and the development of methods for the study of body composition; Dr. Barbara Gower, a Ph.D. endocrinologist with primary interest in the interaction of hormonal factors in the pathogenesis of obesity and type 2 diabetes; and Dr. Susan Sell, a Ph.D. geneticist with interest in the genetics of type 2 diabetes. Drs. Nagy, Gower, and Sell were responsible for establishing laboratory facilities in the areas of small animal phenotyping, hormone/substrate analysis, and genotyping, respectively. In 1996, the Energy Metabolism Research Unit was elevated to division status as the Division of Physiology and Metabolism, directed by Dr. Goran.

In 2000, Dr. Weinsier was awarded a Clinical Nutrition Research Unit grant funded by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases for the purpose of establishing a Center for Clinical Nutrition Research (CNRC) focused on investigating the pathogenesis of obesity and means of preventing and treating it. With this in hand, Dr. Weinsier was able to attract to the department David B. Allison, Ph.D., a noted biostatistician with extensive research experience in obesity who in 2001 was recruited by the UAB School of Public Health. Dr. Allison accepted a secondary appointment in nutrition sciences and agreed to serve as associate director of the CNRC. This in effect re-established a solid link between the Department of Nutrition Sciences and the School of Public Health in keeping with the preventive medicine aspects of the department’s mission.

With Dr. Allison’s help, Dr. Weinsier recruited in 2001 Jose R. Fernandez, Ph.D., a young scientist whose research focuses on the identification of ancestry-informative genetic sequences in racially admixed individuals and their association with obesity, diabetes, and related co-morbidities. With his advanced statistical models, Dr. Fernandez is able to identify gene-gene interactions and the interaction of genes with the environment. This added an entirely new dimension to many of the nutritional studies of the department. Upon Dr. Weinsier’s departure, Dr. Allison assumed the directorship of the CNRC in November of 2002.

Probably the last faculty member recruited to the department with the participation and influence of Dr. Weinsier is Jamy D. Ard, M.D. He joined UAB in July 2003 highly recruited year by the departments of Nutrition Sciences and Medicine as a very promising young physician scientist. His principal research interests are in behavioral interventions for obesity and cardiovascular risk factor reduction, especially in minority populations. His presence in the department will significantly enhance UAB’s effort to reduce health disparities and decrease the risk for chronic diseases in minority populations.

Under Dr. Garvey, the new chairman of the department, increasing attention is being given to the problems of obesity and type 2 diabetes. Dr. Garvey, an endocrinologist by training, has achieved international recognition for his research in metabolic, molecular, and genetic aspects of the pathogenesis of insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, and obesity. His studies have ranged from very basic cellular and molecular biology of cell and animal models to metabolic investigations of human subjects on metabolic wards and of free-living populations with unique genetic backgrounds. He has contributed substantially to the understanding of the glucose transport system and glucose transport proteins in human insulin resistance. His population studies have focused in particular on the Gullah-speaking African Americans of the South Carolina coast and on the Pima Indians of Arizona, two national cohorts characteristically affected by extremely high prevalence of obesity and diabetes.

The long-established tradition of the UAB nutrition community, which has historically committed itself to the solution of nutritional problems of national scope, will undoubtedly continue under Dr. Garvey’s leadership.