Professor Turner in lab

Prof Nigel Turner joins the Institute

Meet the Institute’s new faculty head, Professor Nigel Turner, who is on a mission to halt the rising tide of obesity-related metabolic diseases

28 February 2022

Imagine if you could take a pill that could speed up your metabolism without any dangerous side effects? To make it more efficient so that it burns up your excess calories and stops you from getting overweight in the first place. It’s this magic bullet that the Institute’s newest faculty member Professor Nigel Turner has been focusing on, in a bid to halt the rising tidal wave of obesity-related diseases like diabetes.

He’s now going to be broadening his research areas into the effect of metabolic diseases on the function of the heart as head of the Institute’s new Cellular Bioenergetics Laboratory.

A fascination with metabolism and its effects on human health

Nigel Turner Portrait

Professor Nigel Turner didn’t set out to become a scientist – let alone a world-leading researcher in the field of cellular bioenergetics. At university, he was initially studying to become an exercise physiologist, but fortunately for the Institute switched to study biochemistry.

He was hooked instantly and went on to do an Honours degree and then a PhD examining why different animal species have such vastly different rates of metabolism.

“If you take a mouse and compare a mouse to an elephant, obviously the elephant has a much greater consumption of oxygen and much greater consumption of nutrients. But when you normalise to their body weight, the mouse has a metabolic rate that is more than 10 times high than the elephant. It got me thinking whether this could be related to the types of fats that are within the membranes of the cells in our body, and how they might drive changes in the activity of proteins in the cell which consume a lot of energy. That could alter overall metabolism.”

Mapping metabolic pathways to prevent disease

This early fascination led Professor Turner to expand his studies into human health and in particular metabolic disease. He spent eight years with the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in the diabetes and obesity program, before moving on to UNSW.

“My team at UNSW focused on nutrient metabolism or cellular bioenergetics. It's kind of a fancy way of talking about how cells take up nutrients that we either get in the diet or are derived from processes within the body. We then try to map all of the metabolic pathways and functions that occur within the cell to see how they generate energy from those nutrients or use them to alter cellular signaling pathways or make other molecules within the cell, like DNA, lipids, or proteins, and things like that.

“We're interested in understanding how these metabolic pathways can change and the role they play in metabolic diseases. In the past, we’ve focused largely on diabetes and organs other than the heart such as muscle and liver, but we’ve more recently started moving into the cardiometabolic space.

“What we want to find out is if there are various points in these metabolic pathways where we could intervene, that might prevent diseases occurring or at least slow disease progression.”

One key research area is obesity and the diseases that are caused by being overweight. “We have a pretty clear picture that diseases can arise when you get a spillover of fat molecules outside normal fat tissue into the body. This can go into organs like the heart, the liver, and muscle and can precipitate disease.

One of the areas we are looking at is if we can prevent excessive fats/lipids from accumulating in the organs by burning them off in the first place, rather than storing them. To achieve this we are trying to increase the capacity of the cell to burn off calories.”

Nigel Turner and Sarah Hancock in laboratory

A new drug to burn off excess calories – the Holy Grail of obesity medicine

Professor Turner says it’s one of the holy grails of medicine that scientists have been trying to crack for decades.

“There was a drug in the 1930s that did indeed burn off calories, but it was not safe and caused many issues including blindness and in extreme cases death. We’re working on newer classes of drugs that achieve the same effect and we’ve found some interesting candidates.”

These new candidates manipulate the levels of a specific metabolite in the cell called nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide or (NAD) which is made or used when the body breaks down food and is involved in regulating a range of metabolic reactions. NAD can also increase the number of mitochondria, which are the cell’s powerhouse that converts the energy in carbs, fats, and proteins into the energy our body uses called ATP, or adenosine triphosphate. The drug candidates may also cause existing mitochondria to work more efficiently to burn off excess calories.

In addition to this project targeting fuel metabolism, Professor Turner is also working on a project that will develop new drugs that prevent the accumulation of specific types of toxic lipid molecules. “We know that lipids are important for many cellular processes and that not all lipid metabolites have harmful effects in the cell, so we are trying to ensure that the drugs we develop selectively target just the bad lipids that have a negative, disease-causing effect on the cell.”

Dr Turner will be joined in his new lab initially by a Post Doc Dr Sarah Hancock, and two PhD students Hemna Govindaraju and Jasmine Banks. He plans to expand the team to around nine in 2022.

Maintaining a healthy home life

It will be an incredibly busy few months for Professor Turner, who also is married with three children aged 14, 11, and eight.

“They're great kids, they're all different and at an age where we have lots of fun together. When I do have spare time, I try and play golf. One good thing during lockdown was that I could play weekly and knock off a round early in the morning before work and still be back to run the kids through their homeschooling.”

Prof Nigel Turner - golf

The downside to the pandemic has been a halt on Professor Turner’s yearly golf trips overseas with his close friends. “I said to my wife the first year it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to play on these courses overseas. And then it happened the following year and the next year. She’s been very good about it and I do hope to get over to Ireland in June if I can.”

It’s little surprise that a man who researches metabolic diseases tries to keep as healthy as possible. As well as playing golf, he has a home gym and his wife is a dietitian too.

“I do live a pretty healthy lifestyle, but I love my sweet stuff and a treat now and then. It’s about being balanced. If you’re good most of the time you can be naughty some of the time,” he says.

Acknowledgement of Country

The Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute acknowledges Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures; and to Elders past and present.

Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute - The Home of Heart Research for 30 Years