In celebration of National Dairy Month, USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) is highlighting NIFA-funded researcher Dr. Janos Zempleni.
Dr. Zempleni serves as the director of the Nebraska Center for the Prevention of Obesity Disease through Dietary Molecules at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Tell us your journey and how your interest in agriculture developed.
I received undergraduate and graduate training in nutrition science and the mathematic modeling of nutrient metabolism and acquired skills in pediatric nutrition, biochemistry, cell and molecular biology, and epigenetics during my post-graduate training. From 2013 to 2014, I began to study the roles of milk exosomes in nutrition and drug delivery. Exosomes are natural nanoparticles that transfer regulatory cargos such as microRNA, proteins and lipids from exosome donor cells to adjacent or distant recipient cells. Exosomes and their cargos regulate genes and metabolism in recipient cells. We have pioneered a line of discovery by demonstrating that milk exosomes and their cargos can be absorbed from milk and elicit effects in adults (cow’s milk) and infants (mother’s milk) and can be loaded with therapeutics for delivery to hard-to-reach diseased tissues, e.g., brain tumors.
Describe your involvement with NIFA and your role.
I received my first NIFA grant in 2000 and have received several NIFA grants over the years. I am a member of USDA Multistate Group W-4002 and participate in the group’s annual meetings. I have served on NIFA grant review panels as a reviewer.
Could you catch us up on one of your NIFA-funded projects? What is the goal of your project and what impact do you hope it has on your institution and trainees?
Currently we are working on a project titled, “Biopharming: Engineering Nanoparticles in Milk for Use in Drug Delivery.” The premise of this project is that milk exosomes have properties conducive for delivering therapeutics to hard-to-reach, diseased tissues. The vision is to position our team for developing transgenic livestock (cow, goat) that secretes milk exosomes optimized for drug delivery. Milk from such livestock benefits dairy farmers because of the added value of the milk they produce for the pharmaceutical industry.
Another project is, “Milk Exosome-Driven Evolution of Antibiotic-Resistant Gut Pathogens.” The premise of this project is that milk exosomes do not only select for bacterial communities in the gut microbiome (which we reported in 2019, Fang et al.) but also selects polymorphisms and mutations in gut bacteria that alter their metabolism and virulence. This research is important for the approximate 2.8 million infants annually in the U.S. who don’t realize the nutritional benefits conferred by human milk exosomes. (The content of exosomes is high in milk but very low in formulas, and only 26% of the infants born in the U.S. are exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life, which is the recommendation by the American Academy of Pediatrics.)
How has the NIFA funding shaped your professional development as a scientist?
NIFA funding has enabled me to advance a new line of discovery by studying the role of milk exosomes and their cargos in human nutrition and health. I have leveraged my NIFA-funded research to develop a workforce with expertise in dairy, nutrition, and drug delivery. We have formalized the training in a certificate program titled Nutrition, Non-coding RNAs, and Extracellular Vesicles at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The NIFA projects allowed me to acquire new knowledge in microbiology and expand my existing knowledge in drug delivery.
What advice to you have for current students who may be interested in pursuing a similar career path?
I have a very fulfilling career and encourage students to pursue NIFA funding in addition to funding from other external sources. I consider exosomes the new microbiome and hope that current students will consider entering the field. Be willing to cross discipline boundaries, as is the case for me: diary/agriculture, nutrition, microbiome and drug delivery. Reach out to me if you are looking for training opportunities.
Follow along with Dr. Zempleni and his work through his Twitter account @JZempleni.
Photo: Dr. Zempleni serves as the director of the Nebraska Center for the Prevention of Obesity Disease through Dietary Molecules at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Image provided by Dr. Zempleni.