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Fat-cell Biologist Perry Bickel Fighting Obesity on Molecular Level
The director of the new Center for Diabetes and Obesity Research at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston is tackling the obesity crisis in the United States by attempting to remodel the molecular machinery of fat storage in cells.
Recently recruited to launch the center, molecular cell biologist and endocrinologist Perry E. Bickel, M.D., is using his expertise in the packaging and storage of fat in cells to address a host of obesity-related health problems that plague many Americans.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), since the mid-1970s, the prevalence of obesity has increased sharply for both adults and children. Being overweight or obese increases the risk of type 2 diabetes, hypertension, coronary heart disease, gallbladder disease, osteoarthritis, sleep apnea and some cancers. “For decades, we have been studying how fats are transported from tissue to tissue,” said Bickel, whose research center is one of nine in the university’s Brown Foundation Institute of Molecular Medicine for the Prevention of Human Diseases (IMM). “Much less attention has been paid to the questions of how fat is stored and transported within cells.”
“Dr. Bickel has made major discoveries in fat-cell biology with implications for human diabetes and obesity,” said C. Thomas Caskey, M.D., IMM director and chief executive officer. “He is an example of a modern physician-scientist who has mastered the skills of patient care as well as fundamental disease mechanisms.”
“The fat cell is the professional at storing fat,” Bickel said. “But, the storage capacity of our fat tissue can be exceeded. When that happens, fatty acids spill over into other tissues such as muscle and liver, and those tissues may malfunction in ways that lead to diabetes and other complications.”
Bickel’s research focuses on the lipid (fat) droplets found inside cells. He studies a family of proteins that coat the droplets and organize fat packaging for storage and fat breakdown for energy production. “If we can manipulate these proteins through new medications or diet, we can promote the burning rather than storage of fat in our cells and muscle tissue,” Bickel said.
Bickel’s contributions to fat-cell biology include the discovery and characterization of the first lipid droplet protein in the perilipin family that is linked to fat burning. He named this protein OXPAT because it is found in tissues, such as the heart, that burn (oxidize) large amounts of fatty acids.
By Rob Cahill, Institutional Advancement