PROFILE: Researcher Spurred by Unconventional Ideas
Patrick Tso, PhD, has this “totally crazy idea.”
What if it were possible to do a blood test on someone and determine from it where in the world they have been traveling?
And what if the clues to a person’s journeys around the world would also explain why “yo-yo” dieting is so bad for the body?
This is what keeps Dr. Tso happy, and extraordinarily productive. Honored with the Distinguished Research Award from the American Physiological Society and internationally recognized for his work in understanding cholesterol metabolism, Dr. Tso is associate director of the Obesity Research Center at UC’s Genome Research Institute (GRI) and the leader of the lipid group.
Dr. Tso also is the director of the Cincinnati Mouse Metabolic Phenotyping Center at the GRI. Funded by the National Institutes of Health, this highly sophisticated core facility is one of only three of its kind in the country—the others at Vanderbilt and Yale universities.
When he’s not thinking out of the box—authoring or coauthoring more than 120 papers, 28 review articles or book chapters and presenting 119 invited lectures—Dr. Tso is inspiring the next generation of scientists with his “crazy ideas.” He’s trained 25 pre- and post-doctoral fellows so far.
Dr. Tso gives a significant amount of lab space to younger members of his team, and he also opens his lab during the summer to undergraduate science students interested in lab work.
“I think it is very important to help young scientists succeed,” says Dr. Tso.
A gastrointestinal physiologist by training who studies how nutrients are digested, dissolved and transported by the gut, Dr. Tso describes his own research interest as three-fold—gastrointestinal physiology, gut-brain interaction (how diet affects obesity) and cholesterol metabolism.
Shortly after he arrived at UC in 1996 to join the Department of Pathology, he along with Stephen Woods, PhD, and Randy Seeley, PhD, both of the Department of Psychiatry, formed the Obesity Research Center. Now located at the GRI, the obesity research group has grown to more than 50 people and has eight principal investigators.
Recently, Dr. Tso and colleague Ron Jandacek, PhD, have become very interested in environmental toxins known as “xenobiotics,” which basically means ‘strange life forms.” These chemicals enter the body constantly through smoking, food and even breathing and are stored in our fat tissue.
That’s where the maybe-not-so-crazy idea comes in.
Since the nature of the toxins in our body depends on the foods we eat and the air we breathe, “If you have traveled to another country, would the nature of the toxins at that place change the xenobiotics pattern in your body?” he asks. “It could be kind of like a fingerprint—like an internal passport.”
And since these toxins get stored in our fat tissue, “When you burn fat, they are reintroduced to the blood stream and the body doesn’t necessarily handle them the same way twice,” he says.
“Could this be a major reason why 'yo-yo’ dieting is so bad for us?”
Dr. Tso plans to look a bit further into this theory when some of his graduate students and laboratory co-workers travel to China this year.
Although he is at a point in his career where much of his time is spent outside the lab writing papers and grants, Dr. Tso still loves hands-on research, and is looking forward to his next sabbatical leave when he can get back to working at the lab bench.
“I miss being in the lab,” Dr. Tso says. “That’s what I really love.”
Dr. Tso is an educator who believes there is no stupid question. He’s researcher who isn’t afraid to say he has a ‘crazy” idea. And he’s a humble colleague—so much so in fact that his awards and honors are still in boxes lining the hallway outside his office.
One of those honors, a signed portrait of President Ronald Reagan, is particularly important to Dr. Tso. Some might think that’s ironic considering he was once nearly deported back to Hong Kong while he was working at the University of Tennessee during President Reagan’s administration.
Congressman Harold Ford and Senator Howard Baker learned that one of the nation’s best researchers might actually be forced to leave and sponsored a bill to keep him in the United States.
Bestowing perhaps the ultimate national honor—“They actually spent 15 minutes discussing my case on the Senate floor,” Dr. Tso says humbly.