The human body needs sugars and fats to survive, but too much of either can be problematic.
Van Andel Institute’s Dr. Ning Wu seeks a deeper understanding of how these important components impact metabolism, with the goal of leveraging her findings to improve health.
VAI Voice caught up with Dr. Wu to chat about her research, why she became a scientist and some exciting advances from her lab.
What do you study?
Dr. Wu: I study sugar and fat metabolism with the goal of figuring out how we can create personalized diets. Too much sugar and fat aren’t good for you but, at the same time, we need both to survive. For example, glucose — that is, sugar — is needed for cell division and renewal.
We’re interested in determining the point at which fats and sugars become metabolically toxic to us. This is an important step toward finding disease biomarkers, which are vital diagnostic tools that help catch problems early.
What are the implications for human health?
Dr. Wu: We’re focused on early diagnosis and prevention. As life expectancy has increased, we’ve realized that the risk of developing diseases such as cancer, neurodegenerative disorders and Type 2 diabetes are linked to age. We want to find out if there are ways to prevent or delay the onset of age-related disease so that we can stay healthy for longer. One important way to do this is through diet.
Why did you become a scientist?
Dr. Wu: The puzzle part of science has always driven me. It’s really a hobby. Science is curiosity-driven — why do things happen a certain way, especially in biology? There’s so much that we know so little about.
What’s the most surprising thing about your research?
Dr. Wu: We know glucose is absolutely essential to the body, but it also is involved in disease; for example, glucose can promote cancer cell growth, and too much sugar causes a condition called hyperglycemia, which is a precursor to diabetes.
To this end, we recently discovered that too much extra glucose in cells affects the integrity of mitochondria, which are responsible for managing and producing energy. The result is lower energy output. While we may not overtly notice the effects, our bodies certainly do. The findings have given us an important new model to study these early metabolic events that may contribute to diabetes.
 This research was supported by Van Andel Institute; the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health under award no. R01GM120129 (Wu); and the National Institute on Aging of the National Institutes of Health under award no. RF1AH061872 (Han). The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.