Science - September 12, 2017

New physiology research lab

Albert Sikkema

The Human and Animal Physiology Group will open a new research lab in Zodiac next week. All research into energy metabolism in humans, mice and cells has now been housed together.

© Human and Animal Physiology

There is nothing particularly spectacular about the new Human and Animal Physiology lab. It is a sober room with an area of 50 square metres, in which we see a hospital bed and a stationary bicycle and some equipment set up around it. These attributes are given purpose once professor Jaap Keijer and researcher Arie Nieuwenhuizen elaborate on their research. They are studying the energy metabolism in humans, specifically the power plants of our cells: the mitochondria. In this new lab, they measure the activity of these power plants in subjects at rest (on the bed) and during activity (on the stationary bicycle).

Face mask
Part of the equipment in the room is new. The researchers use this equipment for various tasks, such as measuring the oxygen and carbon dioxide in the inhaled and exhaled air, for which the subjects are given a face mask. By comparing the values at rest and in activity, they learn more about the human energy metabolism. ‘We want to understand the details of the differences in energy metabolism between people who are fit and those that are less so’, says Keijer.

His research group also preforms this kind of research on mice. This is done in the experimental animal facilities elsewhere on campus. ‘Sometimes, you require a controlled experiment, for example one in which you measure the interaction between body fat and the liver. We cannot perform this in humans, so we need to test on animals’, explains Keijer. ‘Cells allow us to focus more on the molecular details of energy metabolism.’ That research is performed in a nearby lab in Zodiac. The chair group has been researching energy metabolism since 1964.

The new lab not only marks the arrival of the group’s new equipment for research into metabolism, but also that of three new PhD candidates who have started human physiology research. Keijer: ‘We want to understand how mitochondria work. Once a person turns fifty, their energy use decreases, causing fitness to decrease as well. This might be related to the amount of non-functioning mitochondria. We want to know how this works, in order to help make people fitter.’

What makes the new research lab rather unique is a combination of factors, says Keijer. ‘We integrate physiological and molecular research. Within our group, we do this with humans, test animals and cells. This allows us to choose the optimal research model to answer specific research questions the best we can. This is a small-scale lab in which we try to measure the mechanisms in small groups of healthy people, such as elderly people, with the aim of improving their health.’

The new lab is already in use, but will be festively opened on 19 September in Zodiac, after a mini symposium on energy metabolism that will start at 15:00.