Two Brody School of Medicine faculty members have been recognized with ECU's highest research awards. Dr. Joseph Chalovich, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, and Dr. Lynis Dohm, professor of physiology, are the recipients of this year’s lifetime research and creative activity awards.
Career Devoted to Obesity, Diabetes Research Noted
By Jeannine Manning Hutson
When Dr. Lynis Dohm was hired in January 1972 to teach at the fledging medical school at East Carolina University, he probably could never have imagined that he would devote his academic career to the institution.
He was the ninth faculty member hired. “I was here for the first one-year class in the fall of 1972,” he said sitting in his small office attached to a research lab on the third floor of the Brody Medical Sciences Building. When he joined ECU, he was a faculty member in the department of biochemistry, where he taught until 2002, when he moved over to the department of physiology. He also has a joint appointment to the departments of surgery, internal medicine and pediatrics.
Through the years, he has taught medical school classes and served as the primary thesis advisor for 12 master’s degree and 13 doctoral candidates. “I have three Ph.D. students in the lab now, and working with the students has been one of the best things I’ve achieved,” he said. “Some of them will be far better scientists than I am.
“As a teacher, that’s what I strive for. It’s a fun thing to go to scientific meetings and see the progress of former students,” he said.
Dohm received notice last year that he had been awarded a five-year National Institutes of Health grant. That is in addition to another NIH grant that has two years remaining. He plans to work through the end of those grants and then begin to set a date to turn in his lab keys.
Since receiving his first NIH grant in 1976, Dohm has been continuously funded in his research by the group, being awarded about $14 million in 30 grants. He is the principal investigator for two NIH grants and co-investigator for three NIH grants at ECU, and co-investigator for two NIH grants with colleagues at other universities.
Dohm’s research career has been primarily dedicated to how muscles respond biochemically to exercise. During a 1980 sabbatical to Oxford University, he was introduced to insulin’s effect on muscle tissue. Dr. Jose Caro, an endocrinologist, had joined ECU about that time, Dohm recalled. “He was recruiting folks to do research on diabetes.”
Until Caro’s arrival, Dohm had studied only animal tissue. Caro was interested in human studies, and those began in the early 1980s. About this time, Dr. Walter J. Pories, then chairman of the department of surgery, began doing a revolutionary surgical procedure to treat obesity, the Greenville Gastric Bypass.
Pories and Dohm teamed to investigate how the gastric bypass surgery reversed the patient’s diabetes. They took muscle tissue from the patient during surgery to study; that practice continues today. Every ECU gastric bypass patient is entered into the research study and followed for the rest of his or her life.
“Together, we wondered at the reversal of diabetes with a simple operation that merely changed the plumbing of the gut,” Pories said. “We reached different conclusions, and that led to the discussions, ruminations and dreams that the previous ideas about the disease were wrong and that it could be reversed. Yes, imagine, diabetes could be reversed.”
Another ECU researcher Dohm continues to work with is Dr. Joe Hou-mard, director of the Human Performance Laboratory. His interest is in exercise’s part of the equation, Dohm said.
“We are examining how exercise turns on this gene called Glucose Tranporter 4 and how we might turn it on for diabetics who might not exercise enough,” Dohm said. “If your body isn’t transporting enough glucose to the muscles, you get high glucose levels in the blood. A way to treat diabetes would be to turn that gene on in the same way.”
The role of insulin in muscle continues to intrigue Dohm. “We saw the collaboration of lipid, or fat, in muscle. The obese don’t oxidize fat like lean people do. The research with Dr. Pories’ patients showed that. After taking tissue samples in surgery and growing satellite cells in the lab, “the genes expressed in these cells pre-disposed them to be obese in the first place,” Dohm said.
Dohm is quick to point out that his research occurs only with the collaboration of other scientists. “Only through interdisciplinary effort can you attack these big problems. I’ve been successful because I’ve been able to do research with these other people.” he said.
Pories said that type of response is typical of the generous spirit that he has seen in Dohm during their almost 30 years of working together.
“He has total, unfailing integrity and great patience. He can even explain complex metabolic reactions to a surgeon,” Pories said.
“He has been my inspiration, my gentle advisor and my moral guide in the pursuit of research.”
When he does turn in his lab keys, Dohm already knows how he’ll fill his time: his family. He and his wife, Carol, have two children and seven grandchildren, whose artwork decorates his office.
“They are my biggest supporters,” he said with a smile.