Research Communications

Lara Householder explores how the quality - not the quantity - of fat tissue in the body may harm health 

By Jessica Salerno

Obesity is a rising health problem in America. We shouldn't be concerned only with how much fat tissue we have, however, but whether the tissue itself is healthy, according to recent research.

In the last two decades, scientists have learned that fat isn't simply a passive storage system for excess energy, but that fat tissue can become dysfunctional when people are obese, explains Lara Householder, a graduate student in nutrition. That dysfunction can lead to complications such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
 
One problem that can occur in obesity is fibrosis, which is a buildup of the fat tissue structure, primarily made of collagen fibers, that holds fat cells in place. This condition has been connected to metabolic and inflammatory changes, such as the ones associated with diabetes, Householder notes.

The student is part of a research team at Ohio University's Edison Biotechnology Institute that specializes in studying the role of growth hormone in various disorders. Householder is studying laboratory mice that have been bred to have an excess of growth hormone. They are lean but have short lives, and are prone to diabetes and cancer.  

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Lara Householder (Photo credit: Rob Hardin)

Householder is examining whether these unhealthy animals also have the fat tissue fibrosis typical of obese subjects. The long-term goal is to find ways to treat individuals with obesity and diabetes, explains the student, whose research is funded by an Ohio University Student Enhancement Award.

So far, Householder has found more collagen in the mice, especially as they age. Next the team will look at mice that lack growth hormone, who are both obese but healthy, as a comparison.

Householder says she finds obesity interesting because of all the changes that take place in the body that can, in turn, impact overall health.

"I like being a part of the process of learning about and deconstructing this major issue, which can potentially help to ameliorate some of the burden, both to the individual and to the healthcare system at large," she says.  

Householder, who graduated from Ohio University in 2007 with a degree in dance, has always been fascinated by how the body works. She took extra courses in science while an undergraduate because she enjoyed the subject so much.

After graduating and getting her license as a massage therapist, Householder felt she wasn't done learning. She returned to Ohio University with the intention of completing pre-requirements for medical school, when her advisor Darlene Berryman, director of the university's Diabetes Institute, suggested she try out graduate school instead. 
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Darlene Berryman (left) and Lara Householder (Photo credit: Rob Hardin)

"It's very clear she's not your typical undergraduate student," Berryman says. "I felt it was a disservice for her to go back and do all the requirements for another undergraduate program, when really she wanted to go to medical school."

This way Householder can use her graduate degree to finish her medical school requirement classes, while also pursuing a thread of research that she finds stimulating. It"s also given her an opportunity to travel to Munich, Germany, to present the results of her work at an international scientific conference.

With the growing obesity epidemic in America, research such as Householder's can impact not only those with obesity but also the complications that come with it, such as diabetes, Berryman says. Understanding fat tissue and what makes it unhealthy is a key part of the process.

Householder and Berryman are in the College of Health Sciences and Professions. In addition, Berryman has appointments with the Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine, the Diabetes Institute and Edison Biotechnology Institute.

This article appears in the special graduate student edition of Ohio University's Perspectives magazine, published in spring 2013.