College of Agriculture & Natural Resources

Animal and Avian Sciences Professor Receives $1.39 Million in New Funding to Improve Animal and Human Health

copper ore
Copper ore

Most people think of copper as a metal used to make pipes or wires. But copper is also an essential nutrient needed in every part of your body and for normal organ functioning, growth, and development in both animals and humans. When copper levels are too low or too high, it can cause several different diseases. The heart is especially copper dependent, and sudden cardiac arrest is the leading cause of natural death in the United States. Even without causing death, many heart attacks go unexplained. To study this issue and fight the numerous diseases and health issues caused by low or high copper levels, Dr. Byung-Eun Kim from the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources’ Department of Animal and Avian Sciences has been awarded a prestigious grant from the National Institutes of Health for $1.39 million.

Dr. Kim will continue his groundbreaking work in the field of copper signaling throughout the body. In his previous work, Dr. Kim discovered that when the heart was low on copper, extra copper was being exported from the intestines and into the bloodstream to try to get more to the heart. This phenomenon had not been observed before and suggests that tissues within the body have some method of communicating with one another to try to correct imbalances in copper in your system. In this new project, Dr. Kim will explore this communication pathway and the molecule that carries the message and tells certain organs to export more copper.

Most people are familiar with insulin and how it relates to diabetes. Insulin is a molecule that signals and regulates glucose levels. In this case, Dr. Kim identified a candidate molecule that can be functionally equivalent to insulin, but instead of regulating glucose, it regulates copper levels in your system. Without the discovery of insulin, diabetics would have no treatment for their illness. This discovery for copper consequently has huge health implications for many forms of disease, and certainly for heart attacks.

Under the new grant, Dr. Kim will be examining what happens to the body under stressful conditions when this communication pathway breaks down. The heart needs large amounts of copper, and it needs even more when you are physically active, exercising, or putting stress on your body. Learning more about the signaling molecule, this communication pathway, and the copper transport system in your body has huge implications in both animal and human health.

By learning more about this pathway, Dr. Kim hopes to not only explain large numbers of unexplained heart attacks that occur every day, but also learn more about how to treat these issues through the development of medications and techniques to address low or high copper levels in the body.  Dr. Kim’s unparalleled expertise in this field and unique work showcases the college’s commitment to animal and human health on a large scale.

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