Phenotyping center helps researchers explore new treatments

NIH designation makes UMass Mouse Metabolic Phenotyping Center one of six elite labs in the country

By Michael Cohen

UMass Medical School Communications

September 30, 2011

John Keaney, MD, Michael Czech, PhD, and Jason Kim, PhD, director of the National Mouse Metabolic Phenotyping Center, share a light moment at the reception celebrating the NIH award.

UMass Medical School has been selected as a National Mouse Metabolic Phenotyping Center by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), making the UMMS center one of six elite laboratories in the country established to provide advanced testing and analysis to researchers exploring new treatments for obesity, diabetes and other metabolic diseases.

The NIH designation comes with a five-year, $2.2 million grant to support operations at the UMass Mouse Metabolic Phenotyping Center (MMPC). “We are excited to earn this important recognition and support from the NIH,” said Jason K. Kim, PhD, professor of molecular medicine and medicine, and director of the MMPC. “This puts a big star on the national map for our medical school, and is in line with our mission to support the scientific community that searches for cures for obesity and diabetes, which now affect more than 360 million people in the world.”

Dr. Kim, who is an internationally recognized expert in diabetes and obesity research, established the UMass MMPC in 2009 to support the research ongoing at UMMS, and to serve as a resource for scientists in the region who use mice as model organisms to study obesity, diabetes, diabetic complications and other metabolic diseases.

Scientists manipulate targeted genes in mice to study what role they may play in the processes of disease. To support this work, the NIH created the National Mouse Metabolic Phenotyping Center program to “advance medical and biological research by providing the scientific community with standardized, high quality metabolic and physiologic phenotyping services for mouse models of diabetes, diabetic complications, obesity and related disorders.” The program is co-sponsored by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases and the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

After a rigorous application process, the NIH designated six phenotyping centers in July to serve the country for the next five years of the program. In addition to UMass Medical School, the NIH selected mouse phenotyping centers at Case Western Reserve University, University of California Davis, University of Cincinnati Medical Center, Vanderbilt University and Yale University. The NIH program also includes a unit at Georgia Health Science University, which coordinates the MMPC consortium activities and maintains a central database with the information generated by the six phenotyping centers.

“The sophisticated testing we do here is only available at a handful of labs in the world,” Kim said. “Because these centers require a very high level of expertise and investment in technology, not every institution can have its own. With this NIH program, we provide intellectual and technical resources to all investigators to enhance their research programs and foster productive collaborations between our institutions.”

Staffed by a multidisciplinary group of investigators at UMMS, the school’s MMPC has three principal cores:

  • A metabolism core studies insulin sensitivity, glucose and lipid metabolism, pancreatic function, body composition and energy balance including food intake, energy expenditure and physical activity in awake mice.
  • An analytical core uses high-throughput instrumentation to measure serum and tissue levels of various hormones, metabolites and cytokines that affect metabolism as well as histological and molecular analysis of the pancreas.
  • The cardiovascular core provides state-of-the-art imaging for non-invasive assessment of heart structure and function, blood pressure, and vascular function in mice.

Researchers from across the county, and several from overseas, send their mice to the UMass MMPC for metabolic studies. Often, Kim and his team begin collaborating with these investigators early in their research programs, helping to design experimental approaches to test hypotheses and offer scientific input for data interpretation. These researchers, in turn, have advanced their fields and published scores of papers in highly regarded journals, based in large part on the data obtained from the mouse phenotyping studies.

“What I find most interesting, and very important, is that in about half of our projects, the mice come from scientists who aren’t working on diabetes or obesity at all,” Kim said. “For example, a cell biologist may manipulate a cancer gene to study its role in cancer biology, but serendipitously uncovers an obese mouse or a mouse that becomes diabetic unexpectedly. That’s where we can help.”

It is through those unexpected results that the UMass MMPC can identify new functional relationships of genes, proteins and pathways that may be involved in the regulation of obesity and diabetes, Kim said. In turn, knowledge discovered from these mice studies is translated for human application. “We serve a pivotal, collaborative role in pre-clinical research to find new drugs to treat obesity, diabetes and its complications,” Kim said.

Before joining UMMS, Kim was an assistant professor of medicine and associate director of the mouse phenotyping center at Yale University School of Medicine, and prior to that an associate professor at Penn State College of Medicine. He’s been focused on diabetes research since his graduate training at the University of Southern California School of Medicine because while growing up in Los Angeles, Kim watched one of his aunts suffer with diabetes, and its complication, which eventually led to kidney failure. She died at 34. “I took it personally, and I wanted to understand a disease that takes away so much life,” Kim said. For more information about the MMPC see: