Zachary Johnson featured on LabTV

From: May 13, 2016 | emfa223

Back when Zachary Johnson was behind the plate, as catcher for the Oldham County High School baseball team, he wasn’t considering a career in research. But that’s exactly where he ended up. And he tells his story on LabTV.

His sophomore year at the University of Kentucky Johnson did some hands-on learning as a physical therapy tech, which led him to pursue a degree in kinesiology and a future in research.

Johnson now works as a research assistant in the Human Performance Lab in the College of Health Sciences alongside Charlotte Peterson, the Joseph Hamburg Endowed Professor and the associate dean for research in health sciences, and Philip Kern, director of the Center for Clinical and Translational Sciences and professor of endocrinology.

“Working with Dr. Peterson and Dr. Kern, seeing the work and the time and effort they put in and really seeing what goes on in research, drove me to want to be a part of their team and here I am,” Johnson said.

Johnson is part of a team that is gathering and analyzing data on metformin as a treatment to prevent frailty in the elderly by improving their muscle growth response. Metformin is the most widely prescribed drug for managing type 2 diabetes and could offer a low-cost, personalized approach to help people maintain their independence as they age.

In 2014 Kern and Peterson, along with scientists at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, received a $2.9 million grant from the National Institute on Aging to measure the benefit of metformin to older adults who do not respond well to exercise.

“The novel hypothesis of our study is that metformin will augment strength gains in response to exercise,” Peterson explains. “Since the response to exercise is highly variable in older people, we are specifically targeting individuals over 65 to help them gain mass and strength more effectively so that they can maintain functional independence. This may identify new purposes for metformin, directly on muscle, in addition to its known role of lowering blood sugar.” 

Johnson is the personal trainer for all the participants in the 16-week resistance-training exercise program that looks at whether metformin strengthens muscle. Although several years from final results—the project runs through 2019—Johnson is pleased with how the program is improving quality of life for the participants.

“I’m seeing a lot of muscle gains in this study, and a lot of power and strength increases, which can help them in their everyday living needs, like getting up and down stairs. That can really drive society by being able to allow them to do more things on their own,” said Johnson.

By building a strong background in research, Johnson hopes to pursue either a master’s in exercise physiology or a doctorate in physical therapy.

For more on the metformin research project, see features videos with medical researchers who tell where they came from, how they chose their career, what they do each day in the lab, and why they love it. LabTV’s founder, Jay Walker of TEDMED, said he started the site because if high school students can personally identify with a young medical researcher, they are far more likely to consider becoming one. LabTV’s network features researchers working at leading universities, corporations, and the National Institutes of Health.

Produced by Alicia P. Gregory, videography/direction by Chad Rumford and Ben Corwin (Research Communications)

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