Ladies and gentlemen of spring break, suntanning, and science…you may want to grab an apple before reading this, because you definitely will be eating one after.
Walking up five flights of cold, gray stairs, caged lightbulbs casting shadows across the monochromatic stone, it feels like I’m infiltrating a Russian weapons base in a 90’s James Bond movie. While I’m not quite Pierce Brosnan, I am en route to gather insider intel on cutting-edge research – which, coincidentally, may help guys like me get a more 007-worthy build.
On the uppermost floor of Eckstein Medical Research Building lies room 540H, where the laboratory of Dr. Christopher Adams researches the effects of ursolic acid, a naturally-occurring compound in many fruits and vegetables. With seven ongoing projects, the Adams Lab recently had to expand to the 4th floor – which would’ve been helpful to know pre-stairs. I had the chance to sit down with my friend Mackenzie Swan, the lone undergrad research assistant in the lab, and peek behind the curtain of some of the coolest research on campus.
Mackenzie, a senior following her career arc toward forensic pathology, is a star – not only does she work on each of the studies, she’s the only female in the lab. “I really love working there! It was my first job in a lab, and I got super lucky with the atmosphere and people. Everyone here is really warm, and we can talk about anything,” she exclaimed. Ties of friendship and common interests motivate this elite crew; when one person needs help, they’re all there to pick up the scientific slack. As Ms. Swan breathlessly described experimenting on nearly 150 mice at once, “We go all out.” The bulk of their research looks at potential pathways for treatment of muscle wasting and diabetes – which is how ursolic acid came into play.
This acid and its chemical cousins are typically used in cosmetics to form oil-proof barriers; not surprising, considering ursolic acid’s abundance in the waxy peel of apples. Turns out, it also acts to enhance insulin and insulin-like growth factor 1 signaling when ingested, two essential biochemical keys to stimulating muscle growth.
Using the connectivity map, an online tool that links diseases with potential drugs by monitoring changes in the genes cells express post-drug treatment, the team identified the acid as the best candidate to counteract muscular degeneration. To represent this condition, a common sign of aging, mice were placed on a fasting diet and/or subjected to denervation – stripping the nerves out of the mouse’s legs, thus causing muscle atrophy due to the lack of any electrical impulse. In counter, different groups of mice received varying dosages of ursolic acid, either via injection or as a component of high-fat, PlayDoh-esque food. The mice were tested periodically on a tiny treadmill to run endurance tests.
After analyzing the diameters of the mice’s leg muscles, they found that wasting was completely prevented in the denervated mice. Adding to their shock, even healthy mice who ate the high-fat diet gained noticeable muscle mass as well as burned fat ! Imagine being able to snarf down McDonald’s every day and still look like Daniel Craig – ursolic acid may well be the golden gun when shooting for a beautiful build.
The best part is that it potentially provides other remarkable benefits too. Further Adams Lab research has found that it lowers fasting blood glucose better than metformin, and independent research has shown ursolic acid can kill certain types of tumor cells. “That’s the great thing about this research – it touches so many areas of well-being, all in the convenience of an apple,” Ms. Swan said.
The lab, which always is well-stocked with the red fruit, also sports plenty of inside jokes for day-to-day lightheartedness, including a Build-a-Bear box that survived recycling for years, the “KDI Trophy”, and a community Shake Weight. When they’re not ribbing each other between autoclave runs, the team is searching for drug analogues that mimic ursolic acid, as well as preparing to expand their apple studies into human trials.
So, if you’re willing to look a bit like Mr. Peepers and spend some cents on apples, you can look as Golden Delicious as an action movie star – thanks to the Adams Lab, Ms. Swan, and SickScience.
Images from: ceoworld.biz, screencap-me.livejournal.com, facebook.com, break.com