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LR: Zhe Wu, Jiane Feng, Lauren Benson, Eric Westfall, Kristina Metz, Nathan Qi, MD, Ph.D. Not pictured: Malcolm Low, MD, Ph.D.
It was a lonely first day at work for Nathan Qi, MD, Ph.D., March 1, 2006, as the only researcher in the Animal Phenotyping Core (APC) new laboratory. He didn’t have a technician, he didn’t have a laboratory, he didn’t even have a mouse.
Today, 15 years later, the 3,000-foot laboratory is one of the top five centers for metabolic phenotyping of mice in the country. After completing a $ 6 million NIH grant and making further progress, Qi’s team of six also find time each year to conduct hundreds of individual experiments while concurrently serving more than 50 UM laboratories and another 20 outside institutions to support.
That success is based on integrity – one of Michigan Medicine’s five core values.
Start small – with big dreams
Qi was hired to build the APC from the ground up, and that’s exactly what he did.
“Unfortunately, my lab wasn’t ready at the time, so I stayed in the old Kresge building for a few months,” he said. “I made a list of things I needed, spoke to Principal Investigators (PIs) working on key studies, and conducted a campus survey to find out which animal phenotyping services were most needed. I accepted a little experiment that I could do myself while looking for a technician. “
The APC mainly conducts studies on mice to test blood sugar levels, insulin sensitivity and energy metabolism. The ultimate goal is to learn more about human diseases like obesity, type 2 diabetes, and the complications that come with them. The team does this through phenotyping of rodents, a process that determines, analyzes, or predicts the animal’s characteristics and how they are affected by genetics or changes in the environment.
The importance of integrity
Qi and his team believe that their research is critical not only to discoveries, but also to provide an example of how such work should be done.
In fact, the team is working to teach established researchers, postdocs, and students of Michigan Medicine how their animal research on phenotyping complements related studies in humans. And they do this by becoming role models with the highest ethical standards in all of their work.
“We are constantly reviewing our experimental work to reflect the ideals of rigor and reproducibility. We provide our customers with detailed information on the procedures and a comprehensive data analysis, ”said Qi.
Integrity is just as important when working with animals.
“It is our moral obligation to respect all living beings. Therefore, we adhere to the highest ethical and scientific standards in conducting these experiments to preserve animal welfare, ”he said. “All animals receive nutritious food and drinking water and have access to social and behavioral enrichments, such as suitable companions, soft bedding and novel objects for exploration. Surgical interventions are performed under sterile conditions with general anesthesia and appropriate analgesics, bearing in mind that interventions that cause pain or distress in humans may do the same in rodents. We are also working hard to reduce animal consumption by offering our customers services from a single source through cooperation with other laboratory services on campus. ”
Keep costs down
With these priorities in mind, the Qi team has set high ambitions for their research. And with these goals comes a number of challenges, not the least of which is cost.
The lab was originally founded with financial support from the Michigan Metabolism and Obesity Center and the Michigan Diabetes Research Center, but to sustain itself it had to draw on national grants and wealthy clients – such as pharmaceutical companies – to do its demanding and costly work support equipment.
Relying on integrity again, it was important to Qi to keep prices as low as possible, as the lab’s primary role was to provide UM researchers with phenotype services at a reasonable price.
“This work can be demanding and challenging and requires specific laboratory skills and knowledge, laboratory tools and equipment, standardized methodology and administrative regulations,” said Qi. “Many laboratories do not have the capacity to carry out such experiments, which are often required by grants or publications.”
“We wanted to develop a core that would be nationally recognized through the provision of professional, high quality services, through NIH grants, and through reputation through collaborations and publications. Our hope was to generate more income so that we can actually reduce the costs for our faculty and our students on campus. ”
Building Reputation Through Breakthrough Research
It didn’t take long for the team to hit more milestones than they could imagine. Their first major breakthrough came when they became one of the few institutions across the country to conduct rigorous insulin clamp studies showing how obesity, high fat diets, and specific gene mutations lead to the development and progression of diabetes. These gold standard studies are now leading scientists to the discovery and trial of novel drug treatments.
Then, in 2016, the lab, under the direction of Malcolm Low, MD, Ph.D., the David F. Bohr College Professor of Physiology and director of the center, successfully received the NIH grant of US $ 6 million Dollar. The grant enabled the APC to gain extensive expertise on the microvascular complications of diabetes and the influence of gut bacteria on digestive function and host metabolism. Soon the team expanded its services to numerous academic institutions in the US and Europe.
The lab hasn’t slowed down since then, not even for COVID-19. As one of the few basic science research laboratories that remained active during the shutdown, the team not only continued to work on experiments for research on campus, but also tested an oral form of the COVID-19 vaccine on mice for a biotech company.
Much more in sight
Work continues in the laboratory, both directly by the team itself and to support others at the university and external institutions. For example, Daniel Wahl, MD, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Radiation Oncology, received external grants to research tumor metabolism with the aim of developing novel treatments and / or diagnostics. The APC works with its laboratory to carry out complex studies necessary to complete Wahl’s work.
In addition, Qi has just started three new projects examining muscle dysfunction, insulin resistance and diabetes, as well as acute pancreatitis.
Further information on the laboratory can be found here