A short primer on the HNRCA


The Student Research Conference promises a wide range of fascinating work in both the social and biological sciences. In addition to faculty members at Friedman, students often cite as their inspiration the Jean Myer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, or HNRCA for short.

More than 49 students and post-docs are currently working on cutting edge research or providing support for ongoing projects, according to the center’s communications specialist Deb Dutcher.

Recent findings from HNRCA researchers that made news include:

  • The ability to breed mice without a gene that some refer to as “the obesity gene.” Without it, it turns out that mice can eat a high-fat diet without getting fat.
  • Evidence that eating the main meal of the day earlier in the day helps with weight loss efforts. (See accompanying story.)
  • Workplace-based weight loss programs that include lunch-hour counseling along with advice on healthy eating habits can make a difference in efforts to shed the pounds.

HNRCA is a collection of 20 laboratories focused in four distinct “clusters:” cancer, cardiovascular disease, inflammation/immunity/infectious diseases, and obesity. More than a dozen of the labs have “nutrition” or “metabolism” in their names. It is one of six such human nutrition research cites in America supported by Agriculture Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The 15-story nondescript building at the corner of Kneeland and Washington streets that houses the labs gives away little about the  work that takes place inside. Here is a sampling of some of the projects currently underway:

  • The development of a stable isotope method to better detect frailty in the elderly, by the Body Composition lab.
  • The effects of plant-based diets on healthy aging in the Nutritional Epidemiology lab.
  • The role of gender in adipose tissue metabolism and metabolic disorders in the Obesity Metabolism lab.
  • A better understanding of how dietary vitamin K is converted for use in certain tissues by the Vitamin K lab.
  • An assessment of the potential usefulness of the glycemic index and glycemic load when giving dietary guidance to the public by the Cardiovascular Nutrition lab.
  • A deeper look at the long-term effect of vitamin D plus calcium on physical function and the risk of falling in older adults by the Bone Metabolism lab.
The HNRCA recently acquired a new mass spectrometer called the QTOF, or quadrupole time-of-flight mass spectrometer. Tens of thousands of compounds can be pulled out of a single sample with this machine. Photo courtesy of HNRCA.
The HNRCA recently acquired a new mass spectrometer called the QTOF, or quadruple time-of-flight mass spectrometer. Tens of thousands of compounds can be pulled out of a single sample with this machine. Photo courtesy of HNRCA.

Behind the scenes at HNRCA is a great deal of support work to ensure that studies are conducted in a systematic way. Franciel Dawes, a second year DI/MS student, was kind enough to give us some insight into her work-study duties with the Dietary Assessment Unit at HNRCA, where she provides support to researchers in many different labs. While her daily tasks may not garner headlines, they are critical to studies involving analysis of the human diet. She assists with dietary data collection and entry, often helping older adult participants over the phone or in person to recall their meals and snacks over the course of the prior 24 hours. She has even developed recipes for use by study participants and says she’s learned a lot about attention to detail while working at the unit. “I thought of myself as more of a policy person. This job [and a prior internship] has shown me that I can do research too.”

Students interested in learning more about current and recent laboratory projects can visit the HNRCA website and follow links to each lab. A warm re-telling of the research center’s history can be found in this Journal of Nutrition article. You can also visit the HNRCA on Facebook.

–       Compiled by M.E. Malone

The Friedman Sprout is a monthly student run newspaper that aims to serve the student population at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, prospective students, and alumni. Our mission is to report on newsworthy information that affects the Friedman community including nutrition research, food policy, internship and volunteer opportunities, as well as school events. Our editorial slant is that of sustainability in food and nutrition.

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