Allison team gets UAB’s first Transformative Research Award

Multi-million dollar grant from the National Institutes of Health will propel research in energetics, aging and health disparities.

A team of scientists from the University of Alabama at Birmingham and four other institutions, led by David Allison, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor and associate dean for science in the UAB School of Public Health, has received a National Institutes of Health Director’s Transformative Research Award in the amount of $8 million to explore a novel hypothesis that links aging, obesity and health disparities.

This is the first time UAB investigators have received funding from the TR01 initiative, which is supported by the NIH Common Fund’s High Risk-High Reward program. The program was created in 2009 to support exceptionally innovative research projects that have the potential to change paradigms and may be too risky to fare well in conventional NIH review.

The UAB-led project, one of only 20 receiving awards in 2012, is titled “Energetics, Disparities, & Lifespan: A Unified Hypothesis.” It is anticipated to provide outcomes that will have profound implications in the understanding of the nature of aging, health disparities and obesity. A total of seven experiments will take place during the course of this five-year grant; three will be conducted by investigators from the UAB schools of Public Health, Health Professions and Medicine, and the rest will occur at other universities around the world.

“We’re looking at whether a person’s confidence in their ability to secure food energy to survive affects the body’s efforts to store fat — and simultaneously leads to changes in the rate of aging,” Allison explains. “If it does, that suggests senescence is not a passive process but is in fact something our body actively regulates in the same sense that we actively regulate body temperature.”

“We’re looking at whether a person’s confidence in their ability to secure food energy to survive affects the body’s efforts to store fat — and simultaneously leads to changes in the rate of aging."

Allison says this research could also help explain why lower socioeconomic status is related to obesity in developed countries.

“Part of the reason that persons of lower socioeconomic status sometimes are more obese than those of higher socioeconomic status may have less to do with raw buying power and more to do with the perception of being on the bottom of the social totem pole, which leads to insecurity and, in turn, an increase in energy stores or body fat,” Allison says.

Allison credits the supportive environment at UAB for giving him the initiative to go after this award.

“These grants are hard to write because it requires a certain degree of courage to put forward an idea that is a little wild and crazy,” Allison says. “I think being in a situation where my boss and colleagues are supportive, and being at an institution that understands that creative research means taking risks, helps tremendously.

“We all came together on this as a team,” Allison adds. “This grant could not have been done by one person and I think that’s really a testament to UAB.”

Experiments for the project will begin in the next few months, Allison says, and he believes some data will emerge early on. Additional funding for corresponding studies will also be explored over the course of this project, he says.

Additional UAB investigators for the project include Molly Bray, Ph.D., Inga Kadish, Ph.D., Kathryn Kaiser, Ph.D., Timothy R. Nagy, Ph.D., Daniel L. Smith, Jr., Ph.D., and Martin Young, Ph.D. Investigators from other institutions on the project include Alessandro Bartolomucci, Ph.D., University of Minnesota; Scott Pletcher, Ph.D., University of Michigan; Neil Rowland, Ph.D., and Daniel Hahn, Ph.D., University of Florida; and John R. Speakman, Ph.D., D.Sc., University of Aberdeen.