Health Defenders: The Work of BYU's Quiet Superheroes

by Christy Eck

The College of Life Sciences makes life better. Professors from every department in the college, from biology to plant and wildlife sciences, are researching ways to improve human health. Eight of BYU’s own heroes give you a brief look into their cutting edge research.

Fighting Disease

Building the Pyramid

Dr. John Kauwe of the Department of Biology has been researching Alzheimer’s disease for fourteen years. In 2014, Kauwe, four of his students, and others published a paper that is still being heavily cited in the Alzheimer’s research community. They analyzed the levels of fifty-nine proteins associated with Alzheimer’s in the cerebrospinal fluid of Alzheimer’s patients. They then identified variants in four genes that alter levels of these proteins and found that these variants were also associated with Alzheimer’s risk. These findings bring us closer to understanding the root causes of the disease, but Kauwe emphasizes that finding a gene is not the same as finding a cure. He compares genetic research to building the base of a pyramid and finding a cure to placing the capstone. Rheumatic Relief, another major project in his lab, focuses on rheumatic heart disease. This project allows him to work much closer to that capstone. Every year, the project takes students and medical professionals to Samoa to educate children and caregivers about rheumatic heart disease prevention, screen children for the disease, and perform genetic testing on those who may have a genetic predisposition to it. “For me, it’s really fun to be involved in a project and to lead a project where every day I can pull out my phone and look at the pictures of kids whose lives are better today because of the work I did yesterday,” Kauwe says.

Arthritis: Not Such a Pain Anymore

Dr. David Kooyman of the Department of Physiology and Developmental Biology is working to understand and eradicate a disease that affects him personally: osteoarthritis. For years, researchers assumed that osteoarthritis was simply joints degrading with age or from carrying extra weight. However, Kooyman and others have now come to suspect that chronic inflammation (a condition also associated with type two diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and obesity) may be the culprit. When the body is stressed—through factors such as poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle—chronic inflammation sets in, causing cartilage between joints to produce too many of the enzymes that break the cartilage down. This makes the joint degrade. In a recent study, Kooyman applied several substances to the knees of arthritic mice that significantly slowed the progress, pain, and severity of the disease. The university is already talking with pharmaceutical companies and others about the possibility of using these substances in a medicinal cream. In the meantime, we can lower our risk of chronic inflammation by taking care of ourselves. Kooyman concludes, “A takeaway is ‘live the Word of Wisdom.’ . . . Eat in moderation, exercise regularly, take good care of your body and it will take care of you.”

Helping Helper Cells Help Us

Dr. K. Scott Weber of the Microbiology and Molecular Biology department has a big goal: improve the body’s immunity to infectious diseases and its response to cancer and asthma. He works toward this by studying helper T cells, one of the three types of disease fighting white blood cells in our body. Weber and his students aim to discover “what makes a really good helper T cell.” Weber assisted his student, Claudia Freitas, in her recent study that helps answer that question. Sometimes helper T cells become too strong and start attacking the body itself. However, they discovered that helper T cells that are nearly too strong can produce a chemical called CD5, which tones them down enough to prevent them from attacking the body yet doesn’t make them weak. Because CD5 is only produced by the strongest helper T cells, they can identify the strongest cells by the fact that the cells contain CD5. When Freitas and Weber disabled the CD5 in these strong helper T cells, they expected that those cells would get even stronger, but they were surprised: the cells became weaker. These findings suggest that while CD5 initially tones strong cells down, it may have the opposite effect later on in the cells’ life. Once they figure out exactly what the role of CD5 is, manipulating it could potentially have a role in improving immunizations.

Cocoa for a Cure

Dr. Jeffery Tessem of the Department of Nutrition, Dietetics, and Food Science began studying diabetes as a Ph.D. student. He was influenced by seeing his cousin and his nephew suffer from type one diabetes. Tessem studies beta cells, cells in the pancreas that produce insulin. In type one diabetes, the body destroys most of its beta cells, and in type two, they function poorly. Tessem aims to increase beta cell survival, function, and proliferation to mitigate the effects of diabetes. He recently tested the effects of three different components of cocoa, called epicatechins, on beta cell function. He found that the smallest form causes the beta cells to make more ATP, the molecule that provides energy to our cells. More ATP, in turn, increases insulin secretion. However, it was the mid-sized form that reduced the blood sugar of animals in a study by his colleague, Dr. Andrew Nelson, at Virginia Tech, so there is still much to learn about the exact effects of epicatechins. Tessem is now studying how they affect beta cell survival and proliferation, hoping to understand what part cocoa has to play in the ultimate diabetes solution.

Improving Worldwide Nutrition

Bug Brownies

Dr. Laura Jefferies of the Department of Nutrition, Dietetics, and Food Science is studying the commercial and nutritional potential of cricket flour. You read that right: eating ground up crickets. Though many Westerners cringe at the thought, crickets are a potentially important food source because they are a less resource intensive protein, requiring ten times fewer resources than beef, per pound, to produce. Jefferies’s work on cricket flour has three focuses: optimizing nutrition, production processes, and consumer acceptance—a fancy way of saying, how do we get people to eat crickets? Incorporating the flour into foods such as baked goods may be the best solution. “I have found the products that contain cricket don’t taste bad or taste any different from a regular protein bar [or] pancake . . . I couldn’t tell at all. I’d eat it,” she says. However, she adds, “I don’t go out of my way to eat it yet.”

Quinoa Before It Was Cool

Dr. Eric Jellen of the Plant and Wildlife Sciences department was introduced to quinoa on his mission in Peru. He began researching it in 2000 in an effort to prevent it from going extinct, only to see it turn into a health craze a few years later. After seeing malnourished people on his mission, he says, “I felt like the Lord had given me talents and abilities, and I felt an inclination to use those to alleviate malnutrition.” His current research is motivated by that desire. Quinoa is more protein, fat, and vitamin rich than its culinary counterpart, rice, and malnourished populations could benefit from switching over. The catch? Quinoa has been bred to thrive in the high, cold Andes Mountains and does not grow well in hot and pest-ridden climates. That is why Jellen and his colleagues are breeding quinoa with its wild cousins, most of which are considered weeds, hoping to develop hardier strains. So far, they have created strains with larger seeds than ordinary quinoa. They have also seen a wild variety of quinoa that can be irrigated by saltwater. They have even had some success growing the original quinoa in hot climates and are hopeful for its future.

Improving Quality of Life

Slowing Your Biological Clock

Dr. Larry Tucker of the Department of Exercise Sciences is concerned about the effect of lifestyle on wellbeing. Specifically, he is studying the influence of lifestyle choices on telomere length. Telomeres are found on the ends of DNA strands and serve to protect the DNA. Telomeres shorten at a predictable rate every year of our lives. However, lifestyle also affects telomere length, so telomere length is an effective predictor of how long someone will live. Telomere length is expensive to measure, so when the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey did measure it, Tucker jumped at the chance to determine the relationship between telomere length and lifestyle factors. Three of these lifestyle factors were exercise, caffeine intake, and nut and seed consumption. He found that, compared to sedentary adults, highly active adults have longer telomeres equivalent to nine fewer years of aging; moderately and slightly active adults have longer telomeres as well, but these differences were not statistically significant. He also found that telomeres were an equivalent of about 2.4 years shorter for each one hundred milligrams of caffeine consumed per day. Those who got their caffeine from coffee, though, had slightly longer telomeres than those who got it from other sources. Moreover, for every percent of daily calories that participants got from eating nuts and seeds, telomeres measured the equivalent of one third of a year longer. Tucker is now interested in researching the association between telomere length and two specific exercises: walking and weightlifting. Since Tucker originally came to BYU to play football, he “spent ridiculous amounts of time strength training.” Now he is interested in seeing if all that work only helped him on the field or if it also helped lengthen his telomeres, and potentially his life.

Dust Mites? Not Cool

Dr. James Johnston of the Health Science department wants to make sure that our home environments are not putting us at risk for asthma. He is currently researching the effects of swamp coolers versus air conditioners on air quality. Swamp coolers, which are used in dry climates, cool the air by adding moisture to it. The concern is that swamp coolers may increase harmful organic matter in the air, since the creatures that produce the organic matter thrive off moisture. He, his students, and his colleague Dr. Scott Weber (who is working on T cells) found that there are harmful dust mite allergens in twenty-five percent of middle income homes in Utah, with no difference between homes with swamp coolers and homes with air conditioners. In a follow up study, however, they found that a whopping seventy percent of low income homes with swamp coolers had dust mite allergens. Though they don’t know the reason for this difference yet, they suspect that the moisture from showering, cooking, and breathing in crowded low income housing combined with the swamp cooler moisture may be enough to allow mites to grow. They also found that endotoxins, which are byproducts of bacteria, were three to six times higher in swamp cooler homes. Exposure to endotoxins early in life may serve as a sort of immunization against asthma, but higher endotoxin levels aggravate symptoms in already asthmatic children. However, at this stage, Johnston would not be ready to trade a swamp cooler for nothing. “When it’s one hundred and one degrees outside, I’ll take a swamp cooler,” he says.


Whether these researchers would call themselves heroes or not, they are watching out for your health. And while you are watching out for your own health, remember to eat your vegetables (and your nuts and your quinoa and your crickets).