Texas Tech University

Scholarship, Student Success Drive Obesity Research Institute Director

Glenys Young

June 2, 2021

Naïma Moustaïd-Moussa won the Texas Tech Parents Association’s Barnie E. Rushing Jr. Faculty Distinguished Research Award for STEM Disciplines.

In March, the Texas Tech Parents Association announced the recipients of its 2021 faculty awards. We are highlighting the seven Texas Tech University faculty members who were recognized.

It's been quite a year for Naïma Moustaïd-Moussa.

She was already an internationally renowned researcher in obesity when she came to Texas Tech's Department of Nutritional Sciences in 2012. But in the years since, she's made an even bigger impact, showing the role that inflammation plays in obesity and other metabolic diseases. In recognition of her work, this spring Texas Tech named her a Horn Distinguished Professor, the highest academic honor bestowed by the university.

As director of Texas Tech's Obesity Research Institute (ORI), she's undoubtedly expanded the reach of her scholarship. But, just as important to her, she's also expanded the horizons of her students.

That's why the Texas Tech Parents Association chose Moustaïd-Moussa as the recipient of its 2021 Barnie E. Rushing Jr. Faculty Distinguished Research Award for STEM Disciplines.

Can you describe your research and its impact, both in academics and society?

Our research focuses broadly on a major public health concern, which is obesity and related metabolic and chronic diseases. Obesity is a complex disease that requires multidisciplinary approaches to understand its etiology, pathogenesis and mechanisms in order to design targeted interventions for its prevention and/or treatment. Over two-thirds of the U.S. adult population suffers from obesity and overweight. Currently, about 42% of adult Americans have obesity, meaning their body mass index is over 30. Knowing the complications related to obesity and the long list of other metabolic diseases it can trigger, it is very important to address this major public health problem that affects a significant portion of our population. Often, people think obesity is only related to eating too much and not moving enough. However, while it is true that doing so will increase the fat stores in your body, obesity is more complex than this. It can have genetic causes, such as mutations in some genes that can cause obesity, and it is primarily the result of environmental factors and gene-environment interactions, not just one single gene or a single environmental factor.

Scientifically, our research focuses on a specific area of obesity: the role of adipose tissues (white, brown or beige) with distinct roles in adipose tissue expansion, energy balance and obesity. Specifically, white adipose tissue (WAT) – the “bad fat” tissue – is the type that expands the most during obesity and reacts the most to obesity by triggering an immune response. Immune cells called macrophages infiltrate the WAT, leading to inflammation within both WAT and in the whole body through inflammatory substances coming from the WAT and macrophages. Research by our lab and others has shown that WAT inflammation is a major contributor to metabolic diseases, including diabetes. That is why our research focuses on addressing this inflammation, even independently of obesity. We want to see if we can improve metabolic health by reducing inflammation, regardless of weight loss, and identify dietary factors that can reduce this inflammation and improve metabolic health.

Our goal is to understand how adipose tissue develops and expands during obesity, including as a result of consuming high-fat diets, but also how we can use bioactive compounds from our diet – like vegetables, fruits and plants that have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties – to reduce obesity-related metabolic dysfunctions; reduce WAT and its inflammation; increase brown adipose tissue (BAT), the “good fat” that increases energy expenditure and burns calories; or convert some of the WAT into a healthier beige (or bright) adipose tissue, which is more functionally similar to BAT than WAT.

What projects are you working on at this time?

As mentioned above, our primary research interests in our Nutrigenomics, Inflammation & Obesity Research (NIOR) Laboratory are to (1) better understand WAT development and inflammation during obesity and how it contributes to other diseases including diabetes, Alzheimer's disease and breast cancer, and (2) identify mechanisms by which bioactive compounds such as fish oil, tart cherry anthocyanins, curcumin and others help reduce diet-induced obesity and metabolic dysfunctions leading to other diseases. These compounds lessen WAT inflammation while also activating brown and beige fat.

Members of the Nutrigenomics, Inflammation and Obesity Research Lab.

Since humans have limited amounts of active BAT, we also are determining mechanisms by which the above bioactive compounds can improve metabolic health independent of brown fat by engineering models that lack a specialized BAT protein, called uncoupling protein 1 (UCP1). This project has been funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and we demonstrated that even in the absence of UCP1, metabolic health can be improved – that is, reducing body fat, fatty liver and insulin resistance. We are currently working to identify how fish oil is doing so, with the hope of identifying some cellular mechanisms and targets (genes, proteins or metabolic pathways) for future treatment of obesity and diabetes. This project has been funded by the NIH's National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. This project also is part of a collaboration with William Festuccia, professor at the University of São Paulo in Brazil, and is funded in part through an International Collaboration (SPRINT) Award, jointly sponsored by Texas Tech and the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP) in Brazil. We have recently submitted an NIH-FAPESP sponsored application to pursue this work.

In parallel, we also have conducted studies to test the effects of high-fat feeding in an Alzheimer's model of brain amyloid plaque deposition, and whether fish oil has protective effects against both metabolic and cognitive dysfunctions. This project is in collaboration with Breanna Harris, a research associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, and was initially funded by a seed grant from the College of Human Sciences and subsequently by a supplemental NIH award from the National Institute on Aging. Preliminary findings are encouraging and show that fish oil was able to reduce serum amyloids. We are further expanding this work in a recent collaboration our lab and the ORI developed with Dr. Volker Neugebauer, director of the Garrison Institute on Aging at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center (TTUHSC), and his team.

Another ongoing project focuses on the potential benefits of including both fish oil and tart cherry in the diet to reduce high-fat, diet-induced obesity and inflammation. This project is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). It is well established now that both fish oil and tart cherry bioactives, called anthocyanins, reduce inflammation, and we are testing in this project whether combining them would have added benefits above individual supplementation to reduce insulin resistance and fat stores.

In addition to food bioactive compounds, we also are conducting studies to determine whether beef proteins and different cooked ground beef preparations that enhance the pH (compared to other protein sources) may exert metabolic benefits in reducing obesity, diabetes and cancer in high fat feeding. This project is funded by Empirical Foods Inc. and is a collaboration with Lauren Gollahon in biological sciences, Guy Loneragan in the Texas Tech School of Veterinary Medicine and Mindy Brashears in the Department of Animal & Food Sciences. Gollahon's project focuses on cancer, and ours on obesity and diabetes.

Because obesity is a risk factor for several diseases, we have expanded our research over the past few years at Texas Tech to dissecting the link between obesity and breast cancer, given the increasing prevalence of breast cancer in women with obesity, especially post-menopause. One of these projects was funded by a seed grant from the Susan G. Komen Foundation and sponsored by The Obesity Society to determine associations between obesity, breast cancer and the renin angiotensin system (RAS), a major endocrine system that controls blood pressure but with important roles in metabolic diseases as well. We are specifically testing these associations in women of different racial/ethnic groups from West Texas. This project is in collaboration with Dr. Rakhshanda Rahman at the TTUHSC Southwest Cancer Center Breast Center of Excellence and Dr. Chanaka Kahathuduwa in the School of Health Professions.

Over the past four years, we initiated an international collaboration with researchers at Qatar Biomedical Research Institute in Doha, which was subsequently funded by Qatar National Research Funds. In this project, we are determining the role of a heat shock protein (HSP40), which was shown to be reduced in those with obesity and diabetes and enhanced by exercise and weight loss. Our goal is to determine whether deficiency of HSP40 will lead directly to diet-induced obesity and insulin resistance.

Last but not least, one of our lab postdoctoral researchers, Kembra Albracht-Schulte, is conducting a clinical study to determine combined benefits of fish oil and exercise in individuals with prediabetes. This study is funded by a USDA Postdoctoral Fellowship, and conducted in collaboration with Dr. Rama Chemitiganti at the TTUHSC Permian Basin Center of Excellence for Diabetes and Endocrinology and the TTUHSC Clinical Research Institute. Kembra will be starting a new position as an assistant professor in the Texas Tech Department of Kinesiology & Sport Management, where she will further expand this project and other clinical studies.

All the above projects are currently led by various senior lab members, including a research assistant professor, Yujiao Zu; my lab manager, Shane Scoggin; graduate students Bimba Goonapienuwala, Tariful Islam, Mahsa Yavari, Shadi Nejat; and postdocs Albracht-Schulte and Kalhara Menikdiwela in our NIOR Lab, as well as visiting students from Brazil, most recently Theresa Ramalho, João Pedro Tôrres Guimarães and Flávia Sardela de Miranda. Some of these projects were also co-led by former research assistant professor Latha Ramalingam, who has since moved to a tenure-track assistant professor position at Syracuse University. These projects also are used to train numerous undergraduate students (14 currently in our lab) from various Texas Tech departments.

What areas are you interested in for future research?

We plan to continue our current line of research related to protective effects of bioactive compounds in obesity, which we have now extended to understand whether these compounds also can alleviate metabolic and cognitive complications of Alzheimer's disease. I am intrigued by the strong metabolic effects of fish oil, especially in the absence of brown fat, to mimic the low amounts of brown fat and UCP1 in humans, especially those with obesity. I hope we can understand those brown fat-independent mechanisms that help alleviate obesity – as mentioned above, we are submitting this to the NIH for future funding with our Brazilian collaborators. Of course, basic research is very expensive, and while the Texas Tech Office of Research & Innovation, the Office of International Affairs (OIA) and the College of Human Sciences provide valuable internal seed funds for research, we rely heavily on external funding to test our research hypotheses and fund some of our lab members.

Another research area we are pursuing is to understand how changes in not only one metabolite, gene or protein, but the whole metabolome, microbiome (gut bacteria) and genome are affected by diet, sex and various disease conditions, including obesity, diabetes, breast cancer and Alzheimer's disease. We also will continue to explore how obesity is linked to these chronic diseases, especially breast cancer.

Another area we are expanding is focused on using the nematode C. elegans – a type of microscopic worm – as a model organism for human aging and Alzheimer's disease.  This project was initiated a few years ago through a collaboration with Siva Vanapalli in the Department of Chemical Engineering, who developed microfluidic chips to culture these worms. Since then, we have used them to test the effects of bioactive compounds in lifespan extension and have now extended this work to Alzheimer's disease.

Last but not least, we have a newly USDA-funded collaboration led by the ORI with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service and the University of Tennessee Extension, in addition to Texas Tech's STEM Center for Outreach, Research & Education, the Office of Research & Innovation's Office of Responsible Research, the Provost's Office for Student Success; and faculty mentors from multiple departments within both Texas Tech and TTUHSC and an international collaborating mentor from Qatar Computing Research Institute. The Nutrition Bench-to-Community Engaged Scholars in Texas (Nutrition BEST) program is a truly transdisciplinary project for exceptional and integrated undergraduate research, Extension and education training that targets underrepresented students from Texas Tech and South Plains College.

What rewards do you get from teaching?

The biggest reward to me is when I see the students are genuinely interested in the subject, excited to learn new information and put effort into it, and also, when they are very engaged in class, asking questions and eager to come to class week after week. I can often see how much they grew and progressed throughout the semester.

Another reward is when they contact me later on, after they enter the workforce or pursue advanced degrees, to express appreciation and share how what they learned in my classes helped them in future classes or their career.

Also, as a researcher, I use current research information in my teaching. This also further motivates students to look more into research and its importance in teaching evidence- and science-based information.

What motivated you to pursue a career in academia?

My passion for research and discovery started during my undergraduate studies at the University of Paris and continued into graduate work. I enjoyed learning from peers and mentors during scientific conferences. Being exposed to research early on as an undergraduate student is an important step to understand and value research and its impact.

Later on, when I took my first faculty position at the University of Tennessee, I became passionate about teaching as well, working with students and transferring my knowledge and expertise to the next generation, both in the classroom and in the lab. I also value the academic freedom, being able to develop my own ideas and pursue them, getting them funded and working together with a team to solve problems related to human health, regardless of student or faculty rank. This was another reason I turned down opportunities to work in industry, even when those offered much higher pay than academia.

How has Texas Tech helped you advance your research and teaching?

Although I had significant teaching experience when I joined Texas Tech, I highly value the resources provided by the University Libraries and the Teaching, Learning & Professional Development Center (TLPDC) for teaching and professional development and I have often utilized them. They provide outstanding services and trainings for faculty and students, including for online education. I often call on the TLPDC and Libraries to assist with my classes.

For research, I am very grateful for the generous startup funds provided to me by the Office of Research & Innovation and the College of Human Sciences, which allowed me to purchase the equipment and supplies needed for our research; fund students, postdoc and research faculty; and promptly get the research going. Without this support, we would not have made such great progress or generated critical data that helped secure future funding. 

Texas Tech offers great research services and training. The Office of Research Services (ORS), the Office of Research Development & Communications (ORDC) and the OIA provide outstanding support for faculty, regardless of their rank. Faculty are assigned coordinators in ORS with whom they develop close and sustained relationships, and these coordinators help with grant submissions to funding agencies, budget development and preparation of other paperwork through proposal submission. All are outstanding and great to work with. I work primarily with Shayne Sims for grant submission; she has so much experience related to grant preparation and submission and has been a great help. I also work with Amy Cook and Cui Romo for funding agreements and contracts, and both are outstanding as well. 

The ORDC has outstanding professional staff who help with proposal preparation and technical editing as well as providing excellent support and training for new faculty and high-level support for putting together multidisciplinary and multi-institutional proposals.  It has been great working with all ORDC members as well, especially Kay Tindle, Carrie Romo, Cristal Sanchez and Missy Jenkins. Currently, I primarily work with Carrie Romo for grant development and submissions and Cristal Sanchez for interdisciplinary ORI collaborations and other research initiatives. I am very grateful to them for their exceptional work and professional assistance. Many universities don't have this level of research support.

The OIA also provides excellent and highly professional services for grant submissions that include international collaborators. They work closely with ORS and ORDC to support the faculty and facilitate their experiences. I worked primarily with Laura Bilbao, who provides support for international grant submissions, including communications with international collaborators, as well as Reagan Ribordy and Michael Johnson for international agreements such as SPRINT or developing memorandums of understanding. All provide excellent support to faculty.

These services provided by Texas Tech help faculty focus on the scientific aspects of their research and proposal submission and have been invaluable to the success of our research program. 

Who has had the biggest impact on you and your career, and why?

Several people have greatly impacted me and my career, including my parents who valued education and supported me from the start; my mentors throughout my career; my students, graduate and undergraduate; and postdocs and research faculty who came through my lab, without whom our research program would not be where it is now. Last but not least, I am very thankful to my husband and children for always being there for me and my career and understanding my passion for my work.