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Derick Han Receives NIH Grant to Research Adaptation of Liver Mitochondria to Alcohol

Since the 1980s, most studies have found that alcohol has a negative effect on mitochondria in the liver. But Keck Graduate Institute (KGI) Associate Professor Derick Han’s recent research using other parameters and a variety of models suggested a different impact: Mitochondria, the organelles referred to as the powerhouse of the cell, improve their ability to adapt to the stress of alcohol intake on the liver.

“In the short term, it gets better, which is really surprising,” says Han, who is an associate professor of biopharmaceutical sciences in the KGI School of Pharmacy and Health Sciences (SPHS). “It was 25 to 80 percent better in some cases.”

Now Han has received a new two-year R21 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to build on this research. He is the principal investigator on a study that will look at the signaling pathways that regulate mitochondria adaptation and seek to better understand its role in alcoholic liver disease.

Han has been focused on mitochondrial remodeling in the liver caused by metabolic stress since his time as a postdoctoral researcher and assistant professor of research medicine at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California (USC). He was the recipient of USC’s Research Center for Liver Diseases Pilot Project Award and previous NIH research funding.

As he pursues his latest NIH-funded research project, Han will work with three collaborators: Jerome Garcia, a professor of biology at the University of La Verne; Dr. Enrique Cadenas, a professor of pharmacology and pharmaceutical sciences and pharmacology at USC and Han’s mentor during graduate school; and Gary Martin, a professor of biology at Occidental College.

Han believes the new insights they seek to derive through their research will have implications that extend beyond alcoholic liver disease. About 15,000 people in the United States die from alcoholic liver disease each year. But many more—approximately 30 million people—suffer from nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.

Han conducted earlier research into the effects of obesity on liver mitochondria that was published in the FEBS Letters scientific journal. He also teaches SPHS students about metabolism.

“Eating too much or drinking too much will cause too much fat in the liver,” Han says. “With the obesity epidemic in this country, one of the main consequences is fatty liver disease. It’s skyrocketing. We want to figure out which signaling pathways are important to helping the liver adapt. Ultimately, we want to understand liver disease and help people.”

Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Institute On Alcohol Abuse And Alcoholism of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number R21AA026944. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.