Fuel efficiency and the heart: Dr. Thomas Pulinilkunnil studies role of nutrients in cardiac health and diabetic heart disease

Published in The Philanthropist by DMRF, fall 2015. Read full article here.

Dr. Thomas Pulinilkunnil is learning how and excessive or imbalanced intake of nutrients alters metabolism. leading to metabolic disorders, diabetes and heart disease. At the same time, he’s exploring how age and frailty contribute to these disorders.

“I f we consume excessive amounts of fat, protein or carbs, the process of extracting energy from these fuels is not efficient,” says Dr. Pulinilkunnil, as assistant professor in Dalhousie Medical School’s Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Dalhousie Medicine New Brunswick (DMNB). “This changes our physiology, stimulating our appetite and cravings for energy-dense foods and leading to storage of fats and carbohydrates.”

In his Saint John lab, Dr. Pulinilkunnil examines how amino acids interact with sugar and fat to drive weight gain, insulin resistance and the accumulation of fat in and around the heart. He’s finding that insulin resistance—a precursor to diabetes which increases with age, overeating and lack of exercise—interferes with the ability of heart-muscle cells to generate energy and rid themselves of cellular waste, leading to a weak and toxin-overloaded heart.

“Diabetes is officially classified as a cardiovascular disease,” notes Dr. Pulinilkunnil, whose interest in diabetes is driven in part by the fact that many of his family members have type 2 diabetes. “Habits are important but genetic factors also come into play… metabolic disorders and diabetes are common is South Asian populations, where diabetes exists in the absence of obesity, unlike North America.”

Using fish strains provided by Dr. Jason Berman in Halifax, Dr. Pulinilkunnil and his team are developing a unique zebrafish model of overfeeding. “We will use this model to study the metabolic mechanisms of weight gain and screen therapeutic agents,” sys Dr. Pulinilkunnil, who’s also working Dr. Petra Kienesberger and Dr. Ansar Hassan to study metabolism in human heart tissues obtained from cardiac surgery patients taking part in Molly Appeal-funded studies in the Maritimes.