Dr. Chad Straight, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Kinesiology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst School of Public Health and Health Sciences, has been selected as a recipient of the Charles A. King Trust Postdoctoral Research Fellowship Award. The two-year, $102,500 award from The Medical Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Boston-based organization Health Resources in Action (HRiA), will fund Dr. Straight’s research on the “Sex-Specific Mechanisms of Obesity-Induced Muscle Weakness in Older Adults.”
“This opportunity will provide Chad with protected research time to learn new laboratory techniques focused on human skeletal muscle function at the cellular and molecular levels, supplementing his strong background performing whole body and whole muscle experiments,” says Dr. Mark Miller, director of the Muscle Biology Laboratory and Dr. Straight’s mentor. “In the end, this work will aid his development into an independent researcher examining skeletal muscle performance at multiple anatomical levels, which will allow him to better understand clinically relevant problems and produce meaningful treatments.”
Adds Dr. Straight, “I was extremely honored and excited that The Medical Foundation believes our research is important and can help address obesity, a major public health problem. Our laboratory can study muscle using a variety of techniques, and I am grateful this award will allow me to continue training in a very positive environment.”
Dr. Straight will examine the fundamental molecular and cellular mechanisms underlying obesity-induced muscle weakness in older adults, an area that he describes as suffering a “knowledge gap representing a critical barrier to our understanding of how obesity results in poor physical performance and disability in older adults.”
As humans age, there is a shift in body composition, characterized by a decrease in muscle mass and increase in body fat. This shift is accompanied by a steep decline in physical function, which is exacerbated by the presence of obesity. Notably, older women are at greater risk for obesity-related disability than men.
Overweight and obese older adults tend to have larger muscles than normal weight individuals, but the quality of their muscles is diminished. Preliminary data suggests body fat reduces cellular muscle function in a sex-specific manner among healthy older adults, such that women are more affected than men. Straight believes that impairments in cellular muscle function may be more pronounced among obese older adults, and hopes to elucidate the molecular mechanisms responsible for this.
“We know that obesity increases the risk for a number of chronic health conditions,” says Dr. Straight. “However, much less is known regarding how excess body fat contributes to poor muscle function. By shedding light on some of the ways that body fat impairs muscle’s ability to contract, we may be able to intervene through either exercise, weight loss or pharmacology to improve muscle health, and, ultimately, help older adults maintain physical function as they age.”
The Charles A. King Trust Postdoctoral Research Fellowship Program is designed to support postdoctoral fellows and physician-scientists in non-profit academic, medical or research institutions in Massachusetts. Dr. Straight is the first researcher from UMass Amherst to receive the grant in the Clinical and Health Services Research category, an award typically given to hospital-based medical practitioners.