A lot can change over the course of a decade. But for a number of faculty at the University of Minnesota, at least one thing has stayed the same: their dedication and commitment to research.
Meet 3 University of Minnesota researchers who have spent the latter part of their lives searching for answers to questions they posed years ago. Learn about their research projects, what’s kept them coming back to the U, and more.
Alan Sinaiko, M.D.
Years with University of Minnesota: 37
Research interest: insulin resistance
More than three decades ago, Sinaiko began studying why some young children develop cardiovascular risks and type 2 diabetes in adulthood. Looking for answers, he began an investigation that examined the insulin profiles of Minneapolis Public School students in grades 5-8. Sinaiko and his team measured insulin resistance, blood pressure, lipids, height, and weight, and collected survey data from the students about their lifestyles. Over the years, he’s continued collecting data from these participants as they age, using those data to study the differences between those who are developing signs of cardiovascular risk from those who are not.
The study has yielded remarkable discoveries for Sinaiko and his team.
First, they found that insulin resistance is not only directly related to obesity, but also has independent effects on cardiovascular risk factors. They also found that during the second decade of life, cardiovascular risk factors and insulin resistance in young men increase significantly compared to young women, providing evidence that men are already at a greater risk for early cardiovascular disease before they become young adults.
Sinaiko and his team also found that overweight children are much more likely to become overweight adults, while normal weight children become normal weight adults.
So, what is it that keeps Sinaiko dedicated to his research?
“You rarely get the final answer to the problems you're trying to solve,” he said. “As you do research, there are always more questions that arise because problems become more complex.”
Sinaiko also says that it’s really gratifying to be a pediatrician working with children who have a long life a head of them, thinking you can do something to make life easier for them in terms of health as they become adults.
As for why he’s spent so much time at the U of M, Sinaiko says that it’s a great place to do clinical work and research.
“I’ve been able to form close collaborations with colleagues in my division and in other University departments who are doing the same kind of work I’m doing . It’s a very stimulating environment.”
Harry Lando, Ph.D.
Years with University of Minnesota: 23
Research interest: Tobacco and smoking cessations
Forty years ago, Harry Lando set out to on a mission to help people quit smoking. He used his background in psychology to help prepare and support people who were trying to quit.
The results of his initial research were quite successful—nearly 40% of trial enrollees had gone at least one week without smoking at 12-month follow-up. But even with promising results, Lando realized that, if he focused on individual smokers, he would have a limited impact when it came to reaching an entire population.
When Lando was recruited to the University’s School of Public Health in 1988, he began investigating how to target tobacco use in communities. Early in his career at the University of Minnesota , Lando worked on the Minnesota Heart Health Program which allowed him to investigate ways to lower tobacco use—and ultimately cardiovascular disease—in Mankato, Bloomington, and Fargo-Moorhead. The program engaged these communities in heart health promotion, including smoking cessation.
In the last decade, Lando switched gears and revamped his focus to international communities. While tobacco use is steadily decreasing in high-income countries, like the United States and England, it’s on the rise in low-income countries like India and Indonesia. He is actively involved in the World Conference on Tobacco OR Health, a conference that brings together political and scientific leaders and other stakeholders with the goal of decreasing tobacco use and improving the world’s health.
Lando attributes much of his long career in the field to the different opportunities that have opened up for him.
“I never anticipated being active at the global level,” says Lando. “When I started as a doctoral student in 1969, there were very few people doing tobacco research. Because I started at that time, it was easier for me to establish my career and gain credibility in the research community.”
Given current trends, estimates are that there will be 1 billion tobacco-related deaths in this century.
“We’re searching for a way to bend that curve by even 10 percent,” says Lando. “And it’s great that I have an opportunity to make a difference—that’s part of my goal; to encourage and empower others.”
Lester Drewes, Ph.D.
Years with University of Minnesota: 35
Research interest: Blood-Brain Barrier
Making the transition from studying fungi to studying the brain was a natural choice for Lester Drewes, who recognized that the field of neuroscience research was on an accelerated growth curve.
And since joining the Medical School in 1976, Drewes has established himself as a recognized expert in brain science research. Specifically, he studies the blood-brain barrier, which is a term used to describe the cells that line blood vessels and regulate what can and cannot enter the brain. In other words, the blood brain barrier has the capacity to keep out toxins that enter the blood stream, while also allowing necessities like glucose and other essential nutrients into the brain.
Drewes’ main focus is to figure out how to get medications that are targeted to treat diseases across the blood-brain barrier and into the brain. Right now, those medications and drugs can’t get access into the brain, but if he and his lab team can discover a way to get therapies delivered directly into the brain, it may make a world of difference in treating devastating diseases like Alzheimer’s Disease and Parkinson’s Disease.
“This field is exciting, and the University has done a lot of things in the last decade that enable scientists in Minnesota to take big steps in understanding and treating diseases while also enabling translational research that achieves the ultimate goal of moving therapies to the clinical to benefit the patient,” says Drewes.
Specifically, Drewes points to the leading-edge facilities at the Center for Magnetic Resonance Research and the Masonic Cancer Center, as well as the expertise of the OFfice of Technology Commercialization, which allow him to streamline processes in his work. He also appreciates the interdisciplinary collaboration at the University of Minnesota, as well as his colleagues.
“I’m really wowed by some of my colleagues in the Academic Health Center, and even some outside the AHC, says Drewes. “ I’ve had the opportunity to work with individuals who are not only great scientists, but also exceptional individuals.”
-- Emily Jensen