Young-Cheul Kim, a UMass Amherst assistant professor of nutrition and an expert in how fat cells develop in the body, will study molecular-level biological function of certain medicinal herbs such as the vetch, Astragalus, also known as milk vetch or huang chi.
His lab will use a well characterized fat cell differentiation model to test a number of plant-based compounds or phytochemicals for potential anti-obesity and anti-diabetes properties, first in vitro cell culture, then in whole animals and finally in humans.
He says: "Overall, we are trying to understand the cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying the development of fat cells in the body, especially by bioactive food components, with the goal to find therapeutic strategies for not only preventing chronic diseases such as obesity, cancer and heart disease, but promoting overall health.
These chronic disorders are all related to our diet, illustrating the importance of nutrition."
Despite its use for hundreds of years in Asia to prevent or treat certain diseases, evidence for health claims of the herb Astragalus is "limited" at present, according to the U.S. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. This is partly because one herb may contain so many different active components.
Kim notes the time has come to investigate, with rigorous scientific methods, what compounds are present and how they work.
Therefore, he says: "One of the goals of our collaboration with this prestigious center of Asian medicine in Chungbuk will be to identify any biologically active ingredients."
Kim's lab has already shown some preliminary evidence from experiments on mouse cells that an extract of the hardy high-altitude shrub, Rhodiola, also known as "golden root", inhibits the generation of new fat cells from precursor cells called pre-adipocytes.
It acts by interfering with the genes that determine the progression of adipogenesis, or the formation of fat, the researcher says.
His team will extend their future studies to more compounds, and explore effects in primary cultures of human cells. If replicated, studies can move on to test effectiveness in whole body systems.
Though some may be surprised by the Korean medical center's interest in research on obesity and diabetes, Kim says these conditions have emerged as public health problems in Asia over the past two decades with the availability of fast foods and a tendency toward decreased physical activity.
"We know from immigrant epidemiologic studies that a balanced diet and exercise play a critical role in maintaining health, preventing chronic diseases and reducing the incidence of metabolic syndromes such as diabetes and obesity. Unfortunately we can now see obese children throughout Asia, and many more people with diabetes," says Kim, who grew up in Korea.
"So the major research centers and food industry are now very interested to investigate the possible functional and beneficial roles of plants and herbs, as well as their nutritional value," he adds.