Pennington Biomedical's Next Act

By Maggie Heyn Richardson

Few public health problems are as complex as obesity.

Forty percent of adults in the United States now struggle with the condition, the highest rate on record. Its causes are many, its cures little understood and its ripple effects undeniable. Obesity is the spark that ignites a litany of costly diseases, including diabetes, heart, kidney and liver disease and many forms of cancers.

It’s within this complex cycle of causes and effects that Pennington Biomedical Research Center’s newest executive director, John P. Kirwan, Ph.D., finds endless professional inspiration. With an impressive body of active research in obesity and diabetes trailing him, Kirwan’s acceptance of the Pennington helm earlier this year signals a new era of innovation and discovery for the center.

Kirwan has devoted his career to understanding what has caused the world’s dramatic uptick in obesity, and learning how to curb the impact of its comorbidities, especially type 2 diabetes. He spent 19 years building a broad body of research at the Cleveland Clinic, most recently serving as director of its Metabolic Translational Research Center and professor of molecular medicine, as well as professor of physiology and nutrition at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, also in Cleveland.

 Dr. John Kirwan

Dr. John Kirwan

Currently, Kirwan is the principal investigator, or co-investigator, on nine National Institutes of Health grants. He’s generated more than $35 million in research funding from the NIH and the food, pharmaceutical and medical device industries. In Cleveland, he led a 24-person research team that discovered bariatric surgery can reverse type 2 diabetes by restoring the gut’s protein-making system. That research continues. He’s involved in finding ways to break the transgenerational obesity cycle through a lifestyle intervention model for overweight women who could become pregnant. And he’s looking closely at how to replicate the physiological benefits of exercise in pill form for diabetics.

If its sounds like a battle happening on multiple fronts, that’s because it is. The complexity of obesity, with its multi-factorial causes, calls for diverse research, believes Kirwan. That includes drug therapy, medical interventions and lifestyle changes. The last thing that will reverse the tide of obesity is the thought that overweight people need to push away from the table, he says.

“There are so many angles to obesity—it’s physiological, psychological and environmental—that reducing it to a matter of will power is a gross exaggeration,” says Kirwan.

Over the course of its 30-year history, Pennington has built a global reputation for contributions in understanding the causes of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and dementia through basic science and clinical and population research. Its research disciplines include the study of diabetes, nutrition and military performance, cancer and obesity, brain health, women’s health and pediatric obesity.

“This was really an opportunity I couldn’t pass up,” Kirwan says. “In terms of research around the issues that matter most to me—obesity, chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, and many, many cancers—the research environment that can support that best actually exists here at Pennington. While the Cleveland Clinic is a world-renowned hospital, Pennington is a world-renowned research center and a hub for obesity-related work.”

Ten of Kirwan’s research scientists from his Cleveland Clinic lab also relocated to Baton Rouge and are continuing their work in Kirwan’s newly established Integrated Physiology and Molecular Medicine laboratory at Pennington.

Kirwan’s larger vision for Pennington is to continue to grow the center’s reputation as a hub for broad research on the obesity pandemic. The problem doesn’t only exist in the U.S. Worldwide rates of obesity have tripled since 1975, according to the World Health Organization.

Kirwan has launched a strategic planning process to set the center on a focused path for growth over the next five to 10 years. It starts with looking closely at Pennington’s strengths and weaknesses, he says.

“We have multiple strengths,” he says. “Our physical infrastructure is outstanding. The campus is tremendous. There are great facilities here. We have the right clinical and basic science infrastructure.”

But Pennington is also clawing its way back from a human capital drain that started 10 years ago, says Kirwan. The downturn in the national economy that started in 2008 created uncertainty in scientific research funding that lasted for several years. Scientists at Pennington saw a decline in NIH grants, as well as support from the state of Louisiana, prompting many to leave for other research centers in the U.S. and abroad, says Kirwan.

“Anytime you have uncertainty of funding, it’s not conducive to bringing in young talent,” he says. “Over the last 10 years, we’ve had investigators attracted to other institutions.”

But, says Kirwan, things are looking up. Pennington is now in a rebuilding phase, and he’s intent on developing strategies to recruit the best talent he can find.

“We have an opportunity now to attract those people back and recruit others,” he says. “We have to build out our workforce.”

Pennington’s 222-acre campus on Perkins Road in Baton Rouge has the physical capacity to support about 900 positions, says Kirwan. Currently, it employs about 450.

Growing staff in a research center, however, is different from scaling up in sectors like business and industry, which are driven by output and annual revenue. Seasoned scientists are expected to have attracted public or private investment in their work, and younger ones need to be promising enough to garner research dollars in the future. Kirwan intends to attract both, but he says it’s harder to land those with established labs.

“To those researchers who have built programs out, produced new discoveries and made contributions to science, you have to be able to offer them something more,” says Kirwan.

That means generous start-up packages so that researchers can re-establish their work in Baton Rouge with minimal interruption. Scientists are usually hesitant to relocate because moving a lab is costly and it breaks momentum.

Kirwan knows this first hand. He spent nearly two decades building his research in Cleveland, which took time, thought and relationship-building. That makes him a powerful advocate for showcasing Pennington’s proven research environment.

“We have something no one else has,” Kirwan says. “We have this research infrastructure dedicated to metabolism and obesity. We have scale. And we have the benefit of our reputation.” •

Baton Rouge Area Foundation