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Postdoc Spotlight

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Ali Pohlmeier_sm Ali Pohlmeier, PhD

While pursuing her doctorate in nutritional sciences at Texas Tech University, UTMB postdoc Ali Pohlmeier studied the pathophysiology of polycystic ovary syndrome or PCOS. She became intrigued by the possible connection between diet, insulin, and the symptoms of PCOS.

Women with PCOS often have too much insulin because their bodies don’t use it effectively. Excess insulin leads to increased testosterone which can cause acne, male-pattern hair growth, abdominal weight gain and problems with ovulation—all symptoms of PCOS.

Pohlmeier was struck by the prevalence of PCOS—affecting 10 to 20% of all women according to the U.S. Office on Women's Health. More than half of these women are overweight or obese and thus at increased risk for type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. Plus obesity often worsens PCOS symptoms, making a change in diet and lifestyle the first line of treatment. " I'm a dietitian," Pohlmeier explained, "so naturally, I began considering ways a change in diet could positively impact women diagnosed with PCOS."

She developed a plan she labels a "modified Mediterranean" diet—higher in monounsaturated fats and protein, moderate in carbohydrates. Next, she secured funding to conduct a pilot study from the Laura W. Bush Institute for Women's Health. Pohlmeier found a research partner at Tech's Health Sciences Center, Jennifer Phy, DO, a reproductive endocrinologist. Their year-long study began in 2012, with 24 subjects of reproductive age and a BMI between 25 and 45. Although 15 of the subjects were trying to conceive, that was not a criterion for the study.

The plan was simple—study participants were given a list of items to restrict from their diets, but they were also given freedom to each as much as they wanted of anything on the list of approved foods—lean meat and poultry, fatty fish, vegetables, avocados, olives and olive oil, fruits, and nuts/seeds. After only 8 weeks, positive results included significant reductions in weight and waist circumference, fasting insulin, VLDL-cholesterol, triglycerides, and testosterone. Pohlmeier used a metabolic cart to measure each patient’s metabolism before and after the 8-week study. She found the women’s metabolism also improved, indicating the possibility their bodies were using insulin more effectively.

Remarkably, 8 of the 15 women trying to conceive became pregnant. Pohlmeier is quick to point out it is impossible to know how much the diet plan contributed to this result, if at all. "When Dr. Phy started seeing her infertility patients getting pregnant, the idea of maintaining a control group was no longer possible,” Pohlmeier said. Recognizing the potential, however, Pohlmeier resolved to secure additional funding to continue her research on a larger scale. "Any diet that helps a woman with PCOS lose weight will decrease symptoms and increase her chances of becoming pregnant, but women with PCOS have a really hard time losing weight.” Pohlmeier asserted, "my diet plan allows them to eat until they are full and doesn't require calorie or carbohydrate counting, which may have contributed to the positive results. I believe this plan has potential clinical significance."

In 2013 after completing the study and receiving her PhD from Tech, Pohlmeier began work as a postdoc under Abbey Berenson, MD, PhD, in UTMB's Center for Interdisciplinary Research in Women’s Health. The results of Pohlmeier’s pilot were recently published in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, and are under review for additional publications. I'm looking at every possibility to obtain support for this research,” Pohlmeier said, "and I'm excited at the prospect of doing it at UTMB. Any step forward in treating PCOS, no matter how small, is really dramatic because it can impact literally millions of women and their families."

Dr. Xia Working_smDr. Han Xia, PhD

The Ebola outbreak – the arrival of chikungunya in Texas – continued fears about West Nile virus – all hot topics that have placed UTMB's Galveston National Lab (GNL) in the media spotlight recently. So it’s not surprising to learn GNL researchers are also hard at work on still another emerging infectious disease – Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever (CCHF). One of those researchers is postdoc Han Xia PhD. Xia came to UTMB from her home in Wuhan, China a year ago, to work for Dennis A. Bente DVM, PhD, who leads the GNL effort on CCHF.

Although the disease appears from Africa to Asia, outbreaks are sporadic in nature and a level 4 biosafety lab (BLS4) is required to study it and the tiny ticks that carry the virus. In the past, these obstacles meant little progress in understanding CCHF, much less how to combat it – a trend Bente and his team determined to reverse.

The work Xia performs each day in the GNL's BSL4 facility illustrates how far the research has come in recent years. One of her projects involves using next-generation sequencing technology to analyze the CCHF viral genome found in infected cells retrieved from ticks and animal hosts. Xia is also preparing to conduct experiments using a recombinant CCHF virus with a bioluminescence marker. By introducing this marker into the virus, she can follow its path and record the progress of the infection. She explains, "We want to track where the virus goes, its replication rate, which tissues it affects and exactly how it impacts the specimen." Xia said her overall research goal is to identify useful data about the viral evolution and its diversity at the molecular level. It is hoped this and other GNL research efforts will add important, much-needed information to the limited body of knowledge about the pathology of CCHF.

When asked how she became interested in virology, Xia provides a very telling, one-word answer – SARS. More than 8,000 people were diagnosed with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or SARS during 2002 and 2003, the majority in China and Hong Kong. At that time, Xia was an undergrad studying biology at Wuhan University, about 500 miles north of the outbreak’s epicenter at Guangdong province in China. "The epidemic showed me how a virus can create a very big threat to public health. I think this is part of the reason I chose to study and work in virology," Xia explained.

Xia expects to continue her research and training at UTMB for one more year and then return to China to work at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Chinese Academy of Sciences. "I know I am very fortunate to have the experience working at the GNL," Xia said with a wide smile. "Very few scientists get a chance to work in a BSL4 environment and I'm really proud to be part of the research work on CCHF."