American Society For Nutrition

Interview with Dr. Sean Adams, USDA ARS

Interview with Dr. Sean Adams, USDA ARS

Excellence in Nutrition Research and Practice
A Conversation With Dr. Sean Adams of the USDA Agricultural Research Service

The members of ASN are the brightest minds in nutrition research and practice. Dr. Sean Adams of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Research Service (ARS) is no exception.  Dr. Adams and his colleagues at the ARS are at the forefront of metabolic physiology investigation.  As Dr. Adams explained in our recent conversation, ARS's study of how nutrients are handled in the body, and how that can impact health, places their work on the cusp of “potentially leveraging specific food choices to prevent disease, even in the absence of any weight change.”  In their work with sedentary, obese, insulin-resistant, middle-aged women, ARS researchers found “robust improvements in their disease risk markers” within as little as a week of feeding these individuals “wholesome nutrient-rich food.”  Based on these findings, Dr. Adams speculates that the “next frontier in medicine” may be the use of food-based approaches to complement drug-based approaches for the improvement of metabolic health, and, ultimately health in general.

Dr. Adams was kind enough to speak with us about the research that led to these advances, as well as his recent review in Advances in Nutrition and his experience as a member of ASN.

Interviewer: What was it about nutrition that initially sparked your interest?
Dr. Adams: In my case, the initial interest in nutrition came through a roundabout way.  Going back to my undergraduate and Master's days at UC Santa Cruz, I had an early love of comparative physiology, with a particular interest in how metabolic physiology differs across species and the natural adaptations that evolve to optimize energetics and fuel utilization. It wasn't until later, during my PhD program at University of Illinois, that I transitioned into formal nutrition science training.
Interviewer: Where along this path did you encounter ASN, and what made you decide to join the organization?
Dr. Adams: Well, as I said, I had an interest in comparative physiology, so most of my early days were spent going to meetings for the American Society of Zoologists and the American Society of Mammalogists. It was at Illinois that my major professor, Dr. Jack Odle, introduced me to ASN, which was (and remains) the go-to society for anyone interested in the nutrition field.  ASN's Scientific Sessions at Experimental Biology (EB) was my first experience attending a large-scale scientific meeting.  I was immediately hooked at that point, because I saw that ASN was obviously a very good fit for what I was interested in.
Interviewer: What parts of you membership have you found most beneficial?
Dr. Adams: The first key advantage of ASN, I have found, is the collaborative nature and the interpersonal interaction that you find at the annual meeting at Experimental Biology and the other society events. They allow you to connect with peers, sometimes those conducting very different research from your own. Those interactions can lead to unique research collaborations that combine a variety of perspectives. That is another advantage: the society supports such a wide range of areas of study, enabling you to come out of your comfort zone and learn about other perspectives that, surprisingly, seem to converge.

The second major benefit for me has been the open access to opportunities for participation in the society.  ASN is very encouraging to young scientists who want to get involved, whether it be through committee work, different EB sessions, or other activities.
Interviewer: Would you describe some of the current research in the Adams Laboratory for ARS?
Dr: Adams: Our lab studies metabolic physiology. One of the tools we are using, currently, is our collaborative work here as well as at other institutions that utilize metabolomic techniques to decipher the changes in intermediary metabolism when an individual progresses from simple obesity, to insulin resistance, to type 2 diabetes. More importantly, we are investigating whether metabolites at these stages simply reflect the progression toward poor health, or if they may potentially participate in disease causation.  
Interviewer: You recently published a review in ASN's newest journal, Advances in Nutrition, which marked its 1-year anniversary this November. Would you mind giving some insight into why you chose this journal and why you wrote the review?
Dr. Adams: Advances in Nutrition provides a unique venue that supports presentation of new concepts in concert with a more traditional review format. In this way, the reader gains a succinct overview of the latest developments in the field, while also considering how these developments can be interpreted in light of an integrative picture. This is a strength of the journal and helps carve out a much-needed niche in the nutrition field.

The review emanated from some recent developments in the study of diabetes and obesity in which proteins and amino acids, which had been ignored in many ways over the past several decades, have now experienced a resurgence of interest as potentially being involved or affected by insulin resistance, obesity, and Type 2 diabetes.  There has been some controversy regarding research indicating that certain amino acids may potentially exacerbate insulin resistance and disease, and yet studies have found that a high-protein diet and specific types of proteins can have a positive effect on metabolic health. 

The second point the review set out to address is the recent application of metabolomics, including some of our own research, that has pointed toward certain amino acids as providing biomarkers for metabolic health and insulin resistance, making them potential markers for Type 2 diabetes risk. 

The purpose of the review was to provide a unified perspective on these issues based on the historic literature to explain the operation of amino acid metabolism during the insulin-resistant state as well as to question whether these changes reflect a deeper issue of energetics in mitochondria that could, in turn, exacerbate disease.  I also wanted to highlight the concept of anaplerotic stress, which can ultimately lead to the inefficient operation of mitochondria.

Editor's Note: Read Dr. Adam's review

November 2011