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W&L Biology Professors Receive $100,000 Grant from Jeffress Trust Awards Program to Research Obesity-Infertility Link

Three biology professors at Washington and Lee University in Lexington have won a $100,000 grant from the Jeffress Trust Awards Program in Interdisciplinary Research to investigate the link between obesity and infertility in women.

Sarah Blythe, Natalia Toporikova and Gregg Whitworth, assistant professors of biology, will apply the grant to research into the interactions between the female reproductive system and obesity. They will be assisted by more than a half dozen undergraduate lab assistants.

Over the past 20 years, obesity has become a health crisis around the world, associated with a number of medical problems, including reduced fertility. Some 15 percent of women receiving assisted reproductive therapy are overweight or obese, indicating a link.

“High-fat, high-sugar diets have been shown to produce alterations in reproductive hormone signaling,” Toporikova explained. “However, both the locus of action and the mechanism underlying these effects remain unclear. Therefore, to investigate this relationship, we have designed a three-step experimental approach.”

First, the research team will feed juvenile female rats with and without estrogen a high-fat, high-sugar diet for 12 weeks. They will then evaluate the levels of key reproductive hormones (e.g. luteinizing hormone and prolactin) at multiple time points to characterize any diet-induced changes in amplitude or timing. Second, they will collect physiologically relevant tissues (such as from the hypothalamus, pituitary gland and abdominal fat) and use next-generation sequencing to examine alterations in gene expression levels.

“Finally, we will use a computer model to integrate the hormonal and molecular data in order to predict potential therapeutic strategies,” Toporikova said. “Our goal is to improve reproductive outcomes in overweight and obese women.”

Whitworth said that the new Jeffress Trust Award Program provides the opportunity to apply the tools of systems biology to fundamental questions about diet-induced obesity and reproductive physiology. As an educational opportunity for W&L students, we’re excited to see the reach of this project extend beyond our research labs and into the classroom.”

Blythe said that the Jeffress grant “represents a tremendous opportunity for students to participate in cutting-edge research that combines translational health research, bioinformatics and computational modeling.” She said that three undergraduates will be selected as Jeffress fellows to conduct summer research under the grant.