Student Research Spotlight
Meridith Hawkins, MS/Biomed '18


July 23, 2018

Meridith Hawkins, MS/Biomed ’18, pictured left, presents her research poster at GA-PCOM's annual Research DayMeridith Hawkins (left), MS/Biomed ’18, worked with Srujana Rayalam (right), PhD, to study the potential anti-obesity effects of human milkoligosaccharide, Lacto-N-neotetraose (LNnT).


Georgia Campus – Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine (GA-PCOM) graduate Meridith Hawkins, MS ’18, 24, grew up in Powell, Tennessee. She played collegiate golf at Carson Newman University and graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in biology in 2016. She then earned a master’s degree in biomedical sciences from GA-PCOM in May.

During her time at GA-PCOM, Hawkins pursued a concentration in research focused on obesity. All experimentation was conducted at the GA-PCOM Pharmaceutical Sciences Research Lab.

This fall, she will start medical school at Lincoln Memorial University-DeBusk College of Osteopathic Medicine in Harrogate, Tennessee, where she is interested in pursuing a career in pediatrics.

What did you study?

I worked under Srujana Rayalam, PhD, associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences, in collaboration with Dr. Donald Harn from the University of Georgia, to study the potential anti-obesity effects of a human milk oligosaccharide, Lacto-N-neotetraose (LNnT). Obesity is the single largest risk factor for developing chronic diseases and is associated with an excessive accumulation of white adipose tissue. FDA approved obesity medications are accompanied with adverse side effects and fail to directly target adipose tissue expansion. Therefore, there is an urgent need to develop effective therapeutic interventions.

Human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs) are the third most abundant component in human breast milk and provide many beneficial effects to breastfed infants. Recent literature has shown other HMOs such as LNFPIII to alleviate hepatosteatosis and increase glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity. The focus of our project was to determine if LNnT could act as a therapeutic obesity agent by inducing the beiging of WAT.

What prompted you to pursue research?

I have always been interested in pursuing research. But being a collegiate athlete hindered me from gaining this experience during undergrad. After starting at GA-PCOM, I knew I wanted to become involved in research, particularly in a field that I felt would correlate with my future career goal of becoming a pediatrician.

I was led to Dr. Rayalam, whose focus lies in the prevention and treatment of obesity, understanding fat-bone interactions and identifying molecular targets for the prevention of weight gain and bone loss associated with aging. Since childhood obesity has been called “one of the greatest public health challenges in the 21st century”, I was very interested in learning more about obesity and exploring potential therapeutic options that may be treatment options in the future.

What were your responsibilities in your research project?

I conducted this research project, along with research assistant, Janaiya Samuels, MS/Biomed ’17. Two different cell lines were cultured to determine the anti-obesity effects of LNnT, 3T3-L1 adipocytes and RAW 264.7 macrophages. This project focused on exploring the effects of LNnT on the transdifferentiation of white to beige adipocytes, a process known as beiging, as well as on adipogenesis and lipolysis. Cells were treated with LNnT directly or indirectly following 24 or 48 hours and several experiments were conducted such as cell viability, western blotting, ELISA, RT-PCR and a variety of biological assays.

I presented our data at PCOM’s annual Research Day in May and at the inaugural Nutrition Conference in June. I also helped contribute to the publication of four abstracts over the course of my project. As I move forward with my medical education, I hope to continue work in the research field.

What is the broader impact of your research?

Over the past 30 years, the prevalence of obesity has more than doubled worldwide. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the prevalence of obesity was 39.8% and affected approximately 93 million adults in the U.S. in 2015-2016. As one of the most pervasive chronic diseases, obesity greatly affects everyday life and places a heavy strain on the United States healthcare system due to the major consequences associated with the disease. It is known to lead to poorer mental health and quality of life, along with greater risk of diseases and conditions such as coronary heart disease, hypertension, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, stroke, cardiovascular disease and malignant disorders. While obesity may be preventable, the various contributing factors and complex nature of the disease make it difficult to remedy.

Standard obesity treatment options depend upon the case and severity of the condition. Several treatment options include healthy lifestyle changes, weight-loss programs, medications and potentially surgery. Many times lifestyle changes are not enough to combat obesity. Surgical procedures such as bypass surgery or gastric banding can be highly expensive and present serious risks including bleeding, infections or even death. FDA approved medications are accompanied with undesirable side effects and don’t directly target the excessive accumulation of white adipose tissue, the main problem associated with obesity.

On account of these issues, researchers have begun investigating healthier, more natural treatment options focused on increasing energy expenditure and/or decreasing excess fat accumulation and inflammation. Dr. Rayalam’s lab is dedicated to exploring natural compounds such as phytochemicals, vitamins and HMOs with the ultimate goal of developing pharmaceuticals or nutraceuticals for prevention and treatment of obesity and associated diseases. We hope this research will lead to more effective therapeutic options for patients with obesity in the future.


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Established in 2005, PCOM Georgia is a private, not-for-profit, accredited institute of higher education dedicated to the healthcare professions. The Suwanee, Georgia, campus is affiliated with Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine which has a storied history as a premier osteopathic medical school. PCOM Georgia offers the doctor of osteopathic medicine degree, the doctor of pharmacy degree, the doctor of physical therapy degree, as well as graduate degrees in biomedical sciences and physician assistant studies. Emphasizing "a whole person approach to care," PCOM Georgia focuses on educational excellence, interprofessional education and service to the wider community. The campus is also home to the Georgia Osteopathic Care Center, an osteopathic manipulative medicine clinic, which is open to the public by appointment. For more information, visit pcom.edu or call 678-225-7500.

 

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