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Students Help Professor Further Research on Fat Metabolism Disorders

For some people, exercise brings more pain than pleasure in the form of muscle weakness, cramps and protein loss. These people suffer from a relatively rare fat metabolism disorder that affects the skeletal muscles and, perhaps, the heart. Kinesiology professor Charles Riggs and his students hope to contribute insights into how the fatty acid oxidation disorder works so that people who suffer from it might enjoy an improved lifestyle and the ability to exercise safely.

Last year seniors Joseph Scott of Winthrop, Ark., Erin Kissinger of Bentonville, Ark., and junior Stephanie Koonce of Uniontown, Ark., worked in Riggs’ lab side-by-side with the professor and his graduate students. Riggs works with an experimental mouse model obtained from researchers at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine to study the physiological consequences of exercise in mice with fat metabolism disorders. These mice lack an enzyme that allows them to metabolize very long chain fatty acids, and they develop symptoms similar to those humans experience with the disorder – fatigue, hypoglycemia and musculoskeletal or cardiac myopathy.

Scott, Kissinger and Koonce put the mice through their paces, exercising them on a treadmill with a variable speed and gradient, a miniature version of the equipment used for a stress test in humans.

Scott won a SILO-SURF grant to support his research. He studied the effects of exercise training, particularly high intensity training, on the muscles’ ability to oxidize very long chain fatty acids.

“I liked working on a project that had the potential to help many people,” Scott said. He is at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences this fall, and said he thinks the lab experience will help him in whatever future career he decides to pursue.

Kissinger studied differences between male and female mice in post-exercise recovery. A previous study had suggested that female enzyme-deficient mice recovered muscle strength more quickly after exercise than male enzyme-deficient mice did. Kissinger replicated the study.

Kissinger measured muscle function at different time intervals post exercise to determine how depressed muscle function became after exercise.

“I learned how to use what I had learned about scientific studies in class lectures in a practical application in the lab,” she said. “I learned that anyone can perform research and be good at it; it just takes time and lots of practice.” Kissinger added that the experience helped prepare her for the future, although she remains undecided as to what she wants to do next.

Koonce, who will continue working with Riggs this year, helped collect muscle tissue from the mice and performed biological assays.

“I love … interpreting the data from the assays into information that could potentially improve someone’s life,” Koonce said.

“The most important thing that I learned…is that working in research is an attainable goal. It is not something that only the smartest and most talented people can do; it is something every student could be involved in if they wished,” she said.

All three students agreed that they enjoyed getting to know a professor outside the classroom. And the sentiment is mutual.

“I learn as much from them as they do from me,” Riggs said.

The earlier these students get involved in research, the easier it is for them to compete for grants, and the more they get from the experience, Riggs said.

This fall, new students will begin working in his lab with Koonce, following in the footsteps of Scott and Kissinger.

“Hopefully the students coming on this fall will replicate the studies, build the numbers and add their own ideas,” helping bring better understanding of this debilitating condition, Riggs said.

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