Kembra Albracht-Schulte will study how high-intensity interval training, taking fish oil pills and eating fish may help with gut health and lower unhealthy triglycerides.
There are numerous and well-documented benefits to working out. According to the Mayo Clinic, working out can improve mood, control weight and even lower unhealthy triglycerides, a type of fat (lipid) found in blood.
One Texas Tech University researcher wants to find out whether high-intensity interval training, along with taking fish oil or eating fish, both rich in beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, can help improve gut health and lower unhealthy triglycerides.
Kembra Albracht-Schulte is a postdoctoral researcher in the Nutrigenomics, Inflammation and Obesity Research (NIOR) laboratory, led by Naïma Moustaïd-Moussa, a professor in Texas Tech's Department of Nutritional Sciences in the College of Human Sciences and director of the Obesity Research Institute in the Office of Research & Innovation.
Albracht-Schulte received a postdoctoral grant from the United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). The highly competitive grant required Albracht-Schulte to put together multiple plans and spell out the impact her research will make on nutrition, physical activity and health.
"The fellowship requires a pretty robust application that involves a research project plan, a mentoring plan and a career development or training plan," Albracht-Schulte said. "The fellowship has an emphasis on the overall training and mentoring experience in order to ensure a successful transition from graduate school to a career in academia.
"It's important to the USDA that the research is going to impact nutrition, health and agriculture as well as the development of a leader in that field. That's what makes the USDA different than other funding agencies."
Albracht-Schulte noted she has an abundance of experts mentoring her during this process.
"In addition to the expertise and mentorship of Dr. Moustaïd-Moussa, we built a team of collaborators with complementary expertise in clinical research, exercise physiology and metagenomics studies," Albracht-Schulte said. "This includes Dr. Natalia Schlabritz-Lutsevich at the Texas Tech Health Sciences Center (TTUHSC) Permian Basin; Dr. Preethi Gunaratne at the University of Houston; Dr. John Dawson in the Department of Nutritional Sciences; and Dr. Joaquin Gonzales in the Department of Kinesiology & Sport Management."
Moustaïd-Moussa said there are three specific reasons that allowed Albracht-Schulte to receive such a prestigious award.
"First, Kembra already has a very strong track record of scholarship, and this is the second time she received such a prestigious fellowship," she said. "The first one was a USDA NIFA Predoctoral Fellowship that supported her dissertation research on the protective effects of fish oil in fatty liver disease. Kembra published several papers from her dissertation and was selected by the Texas Tech Graduate School for First Place 2019 Outstanding Dissertation Award.
"Second, we put together a strong training and mentoring plan. It is very difficult to win such fellowships, especially when applicants have worked with the same mentor (me) for their doctorate and postdoctoral degrees. However, we proposed a team-based training plan that will complement and enhance the research and leadership training she received during her doctorate. In addition, I have a strong record of mentoring students, postdocs and early career faculty who went on to academic, research and/or leadership positions. Lastly, Kembra developed a very strong and innovative proposal, and I look forward to exciting outcomes over the next two years."
Gut health and high-intensity interval training
For her research study, Albracht-Schulte is focusing on three main elements: omega-3 fatty acid-rich fish oil capsules, high-intensity interval training and consuming fish. She wants to see whether the combination of taking fish oil or eating fish while participating in high-intensity interval training will improve gut health.
"Our hypothesis is that fish oil supplementation will improve the intestinal barrier and bacterial composition of the gut," Albracht-Schulte said. "There is literature to suggest that overweight individuals may have damage to the intestinal barrier, which would cause what is known as 'leaky gut' that results in the movement of bad bacteria from the gut into the bloodstream and causes inflammation.
"Overall, we hypothesize that fish oil supplementation will increase the benefits of high-intensity interval training and that the combination of the two will improve bacterial composition and the intestinal barrier, which will result in reduced inflammation, and by doing so, also improve insulin resistance and dyslipidemia – abnormally elevated fats, or lipids, in the blood."
Albracht-Schulte's suggested research is groundbreaking, Moustaïd-Moussa said.
"Kembra's proposed research is very innovative, and the review committee saw its potential for making a major contribution and impact on the field," Moustaïd-Moussa said. "This is a very novel concept, and no study has combined this type of diet and exercise interventions with gut microbiome and metabolic studies. Findings from Kembra's work will help tune future interventions to lessen obesity-associated metabolic dysfunctions."
Research demographics and duration
Albracht-Schulte's project will gather data from 120 overweight, pre-diabetic people aged 18-65 over the course of 20 weeks. She said she hopes to have an even split of male and female participants in order to make the greatest scientific impression.
"I think it's important for us to understand the effects in both males and females so we can make clinical recommendations," Albracht-Schulte said. "Many studies use males only, and very few have investigated the relationship between the microbiome and metabolic biomarkers of inflammation and insulin resistance."
Participants will be separated into four groups, and the 20-week study will be split into three intervention periods. For the first intervention period and the initial four weeks, two groups will take fish oil supplements while the other two groups take a placebo. Then, one group from each (fish oil and placebo) will begin a 12-week, high-intensity interval training program while the others participate in a time-matched flexibility training program.
"We're hoping that, within that four-week initial timeframe, the fish oil can help repair some of the damage to the gut and help improve the bacterial composition, in hopes that, once we ask these individuals to start the 12-week, high-intensity interval training, we've improved the gut barrier and composition and can see greater benefits of the high-intensity interval training program," Albracht-Schulte said.
The third and last intervention period will consist of four weeks of not working out and simply incorporating fish into their diets.
"During the four weeks following the exercise intervention, we're going to ask all groups to stop exercising," Albracht-Schulte said. "We also will replace the fish oil supplements with fish eaten according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and see if that can help maintain some of the benefits that were, hopefully, achieved in the prior 16-weeks with fish oil supplements and high-intensity interval training."
With COVID-19 still an ever-present issue, Albracht-Schulte is unsure whether the study will proceed this September as originally planned. She had hoped to have her study run through Texas Tech's Department of Kinesiology & Sport Management. However, it may move to the Center of Excellence for Diabetes and Endocrinology at the TTUHSC Permian Basin campus in collaboration with Dr. Rama Chemitiganti, department chair and division chief of endocrinology and diabetes and Schlabritz-Lutsevich.
"Since the kinesiology department has the exercise equipment to actually execute the study, I was going to ask the individuals to go there three days a week to exercise so they could be monitored, and we could ensure adherence to the program," Albracht-Schulte said. "Now, we are planning to utilize an online platform to conduct live high-intensity interval training classes for our participants.
"In consideration of the pandemic, we hope to start a cohort with the team at TTUHSC Permian Basin. But I hope to also recruit participants here in Lubbock and run a parallel cohort at some point. The current situation is a hurdle in human research, but our team is working to creatively continue and adhere to the original objectives of the project."
Timelines and thanks
Albracht-Schulte's study will last for two years. During the second year, she hopes to move the funding of her USDA fellowship from nutritional sciences to kinesiology.
"I recently accepted a tenure-track assistant professor position in the Department of Kinesiology & Sport Management, so I'll conduct the first year of this study as a USDA Postdoctoral Fellow in the NIOR lab and then start in my new position in fall 2021," she said.
Mark Sheridan, vice provost for graduate and postdoctoral affairs and dean of the Graduate School, is looking forward to Albracht-Schulte continuing her work as a Texas Tech employee.
"These USDA postdoctoral fellowships are extremely competitive," Sheridan said. "The award recognizes the importance of Dr. Albracht-Schulte's work as well as her potential to establish an independent, competitive research program. I'm delighted she will be joining Texas Tech as a faculty member."
Angela Lumpkin, a professor and the department chair of Kinesiology & Sport Management, was in full support.
"After Dr. Albracht-Schulte was hired through a national search that concluded during the pandemic, our department was pleased to delay her joining our faculty to allow her to embark on this ambitious and significant research funded through the USDA postdoctoral fellowship," Lumpkin said. "We look forward to her continuing this research in her lab in our building and collaborating with colleagues in our department."
While Albracht-Schulte has done incredible work herself, she recognizes that strong leadership from her mentor, Moustaïd-Moussa, was paramount to her achievement.
"Naïma is a huge part of our success in the department and in our lab," Albracht-Schulte said. "She's such a good mentor, and she has been recognized for that. I think that's why I was able, in part, to get the USDA predoctoral fellowship and now the USDA postdoctoral fellowship. It has a lot to do with her mentorship and guidance, which provide a foundation for our success."