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International Obesity Expert to Lead Pennington Biomedical Research Center

Released: Thursday, April 29, 2010

BATON ROUGE - Dr. Steven B. Heymsfield, global director for scientific affairs and obesity at Merck & Co., on Thursday was named Executive Director of the LSU System’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center (PBRC) as Governor Bobby Jindal announced a $10 million jobs-creation initiative designed to foster clinical trials and obesity-related research.

“I’m excited to announce that the Pennington Biomedical Research Center has been able to attract a strong new director, Dr. Steven Heymsfield, to take it to the next level,” the governor told a gathering of state and university officials at PBRC. “Equally exciting, I’m thrilled to announce that we are providing an innovative state challenge grant that will enable Pennington to create 250 new, high-paying jobs related to clinical trials and research focused on obesity and diabetes.”

To receive the full $10 million state challenge grant, PBRC will be required to secure grants from federal agencies and corporations sufficient to create a payroll over the next seven years equivalent to 250 permanent, new positions based initially in New Orleans, primarily at LSUHSC, and later across the state, including Shreveport’s LSUHSC. The positions are for scientific and technical staff, performing research and clinical trials in obesity and diabetes. Plans also call for raising an additional $10 million in matching funds from philanthropic contributions. The 250 new positions will be over and above the hundreds of new positions that will be created at Pennington in Baton Rouge after its current capital improvements program is completed.

Describing PBRC as “a source of pioneering research, innovation and entrepreneurship” as well as “one of our state’s top economic assets,” the governor added that, “Our one-time challenge grant of $10 million will enable Pennington to attract up to $100 million in new federal and corporate funding over the next 10 years. Pennington has long been an economic engine for Baton Rouge, and today’s announcement strengthens Pennington’s presence in Baton Rouge while also cultivating new job-creation opportunities for New Orleans and Shreveport.”

Dr. Heymsfield’s appointment drew praise from LSU System leaders. “LSU is remarkably fortunate to have captured the talent, experience, and expertise of Steve Heymsfield to lead us in the next stage of development of the Pennington Biomedical Research Center as we compete for a rapid expansion of the PBRC's mission and portfolio, said LSU System President Dr. John V. Lombardi. “Pennington has had a remarkable history of research and clinical success, and the strong support of our Governor has clearly signaled the key role Pennington plays in the state's economic development strategy.”

Lombardi said he plans to forward Dr. Heymsfield’s selection to the LSU Board of Supervisors for approval at the board’s June 4th meeting.

The 65-year-old physician and researcher is scheduled to assume his duties June 1st, succeeding Dr. Claude Bouchard, who after nearly 11 years at the PBRC helm, is returning to the faculty as a researcher on the genetic causes of obesity and diabetes.

“I have known Dr. Steve Heymsfield for more than 25 years,” said Dr. Bouchard. “He is an accomplished scientist and a strong leader who has all the attributes necessary to move the Center to the next level if provided with the right kind of support from the Legislature and economic development leaders.”

In accepting the position, Dr. Heymsfield, who described joining Pennington as “a great scientific adventure,” pledged to expand partnerships and collaborations with state and federal organizations in attracting top scientists from the United States and abroad. “As the largest academic-based nutritional research center in the world, the Pennington Biomedical Research Center is in a unique position to promote healthier lives through research and education in nutrition and preventive medicine,” he said, adding, “Our strong ties with the LSU System, including the health sciences centers in New Orleans and Shreveport, will provide us with intellectually diverse and talented teams that can solve major unanswered scientific questions that are beyond the reach of less-resourced research establishments.”

A veteran scientist, Dr. Heymsfield is a former Director of the Human Body Composition Laboratory and Weight Control Unit as well as Deputy Director of the New York Obesity Research Center at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan. In addition, he was a Professor of Medicine at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and a Visiting Scientist at Rockefeller University and the Brookhaven National Laboratory at Long Island, New York.

Dr. Heymsfield holds a bachelor's degree from Hunter College in New York and a degree in medicine from Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. He completed his residency in Internal Medicine at Emory University in 1973 where he was a Fellow in Medicine prior to his Columbia appointment in 1986. He moved to Merck in November of 2004.

"Dr. Heymsfield possesses the scientific skill set and the personal qualities that will enable him to build on the accomplishments of the first two Executive Directors, said Dr. Donna Ryan, Professor and Associate Executive Director for Clinical Research at Pennington, who headed the 15-member search committee that included administrators, faculty and staff at PBRC as well as civic leaders, medical educators and board members of foundations affiliated with the research facility. “The Pennington Center team is poised to move to a new level of achievement under Dr. Heymsfield's leadership,” Dr. Ryan added.

In addition to administrative duties at Merck, Dr. Heymsfield remained active in obesity research. Dr. Heymsfield was among early investigators who identified the under-reporting of food intake by the obese. One experiment suggested futile weight-loss struggles could be the result of self-deception among people who have limited knowledge of how many calories there are in food and were vastly under-reporting calories they consumed daily.

“We live at a time of great scientific transformation with eradication of many infectious diseases that have plagued mankind for centuries, including the people of Louisiana,” Dr. Heymsfield noted. “Our longer life-spans, ample food supply, and ever-decreasing need to perform physical activities have ushered in a wave of epidemic nutrition-based chronic diseases that are relatively new to medical science and that take their toll not only in adults, but in growing children. Some of these conditions, such as obesity and diabetes, disproportionally affect the people of Louisiana and the United States as a whole. I see this appointment as a great opportunity to promote the highest level of academic scholarship in search of the causes, treatment, and prevention of nutrition-based chronic diseases.”

The author of nearly 430 peer-reviewed scientific articles, six books and more than 114 book chapters or reviews on obesity, anorexia, bulimia, malnutrition, pregnancy, body composition and caloric expenditure, Dr. Heymsfield developed the mathematical expression known as the Lithogenic Index that is commonly used to analyze bile in patients with gallstones. Dr. Heymsfield and his colleagues also were the first to use CT scans to explore human body composition and the relationship of liver disease and obesity as well as analyses of body fat and skeletal muscle mass among living patients. As a result of his research, new skeletal muscle mass measurement methods were developed and imaging techniques refined.

Dr. Heymsfield, a past president of both the American Society of Clinical Nutrition and the American Society of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition, is an honorary member of the American Dietetic Association, Chilean Clinical Nutrition Association, Latin American and Argentine Medical Association along with the New York Dietetic Association. He also is a member of the Phi Sigma Biological Sciences Honor Society and a recipient of the Mosby Award in Clinical Medicine; Horowitz Alumni Award, Mount Sinai School of Medicine; Burroughs-Welcome Scholar in Basic Science; and the Rhoads Award from the American Society of Clinical Nutrition.

Louisiana Economic Development (LED) recently completed a new “Blue Ocean” strategic growth plan for Louisiana that identifies 12 narrowly targeted growth sectors that can help position Louisiana to economically outperform the South and the United States over the next 20 years. One of LED’s top 12 growth targets is expanding research, clinical trials and treatment opportunities related to obesity and diabetes. Pennington already is a leader in the study of obesity and preventive medicine, so the institution has been identified as a foundational element of LED’s growth strategy for Louisiana. LED estimates that obesity and diabetes research and treatment opportunities in Louisiana could result in the creation of up to 4,000 new jobs over the next 20 years.

LED Secretary Stephen Moret said, “We have long talked about the potential of higher education to contribute to the creation of high-paying, professional jobs in our state. Today’s announcement with Pennington represents one of the most tangible opportunities yet for us to capitalize on our research capabilities to create economic growth. If this unique partnership generates the results that we anticipate it will produce, we expect to replicate this model with other research institutions in Louisiana in the future.”

Under terms of the challenge grant, PBRC will be required to create the 250 new positions within five years at an average salary of at least $56,000, plus benefits, paid for with non-state funding sources. LED estimates those jobs, most of which will be based in the Greater New Orleans Biosciences Economic Development District and at the LSU Health Sciences Center in Shreveport will generate about $17 million in new state and local tax revenue over the lifespan of the 10-year agreement. The $10 million challenge grant will be utilized to recruit MDs and clinical researchers, who, in turn, will develop national grant opportunities. Grant money will also be used to complete planning and construction of a new imaging center at PBRC. In addition, PBRC will develop a clinical support infrastructure across the state, helping local medical centers and other healthcare facilities attract and conduct clinical trials in obesity, diabetes and other related diseases.

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The Pennington Biomedical Research Center is at the forefront of medical discovery as it relates to understanding the causes of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and dementia. Itis a campus of the Louisiana State University System and conducts basic, clinical and population research. The research enterprise at the Center includes approximately 80 faculty and more than 25 post-doctoral fellows who comprise a network of 50 laboratories supported by lab technicians, nurses, dieticians, and support personnel, and 19 highly specialized core service facilities.  The Center's more than 500 employees perform research activities in state-of-the-art facilities on the 234-acre campus located in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.