Interview with Michael Oda, PhD

Posted 12/11/2014 | By HealthCorps

The following is a Q and A with one of our more recent partners.

Can you share your professional background and your specific research sectors of interest?

I received my PhD from UC Davis on the topic of lysosomal processing of proteins in yeast. At the time, the contribution of the lysosome to human health was not as well recognized as it is today (cancer and lysosomal storage disease), so my mentor, Dr. Daniel Klionsky, suggested I choose a field of research that is recognized for its health importance. This advice helped me choose between several labs that had offered me postdoctoral positions, and I joined a laboratory at Lawrence Berkeley National Labs, on the UC Berkeley campus. The particular department at Lawrence Berkeley National Labs that I was joining had made its mark in human health as the birthplace of nuclear medicine but more relevant to my career, it was where LDL, VLDL and HDL were discovered and characterized. The later was performed in the 1950s using ultracentrifugation techniques, in which the group was pioneers. My mentor was Dr. Trudy Forte who was the Editor in Chief of the Journal of Lipid Research, and the Chairperson for the American Heart Association’s Atherosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology Council.

While at Berkeley, I studied the biology of HDL (the good cholesterol). The primary question we addressed was, “Why was the good cholesterol, the good cholesterol?”  As I had a lipoprotein focus to my work, Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute offered me a scientist position and provided me a laboratory to perform my research. Since joining them, the institute has built a significant focus on lipoproteins and the associated conditions of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. In fact, most of the scientists I had worked with at Berkeley, migrated to the institute.

During my past 15 years here, I’ve focused my research into understanding the structural changes HDL undergoes as it takes up cholesterol and other cargoes. The central hypothesis I was working under is that by understanding HDL’s structure, we can gain a molecular mechanistic insight into why it’s the good cholesterol. This could lead to new, more specific ways of enhancing the ability of HDL to protect us from diseases like atherosclerosis. And in fact, this understanding led me to the greatest discovery of my career, and to me founding an independent company, Seer Biologics, Inc. 

Why prompted the interest in this area or these areas?

My interest in heart disease was initially a pragmatic one of going to where the greatest funding opportunities for research lay. But as I progressed in the field, my understanding of HDL sparked a deep passion for the topic of heart disease and its associated conditions. It has become the central focus of my intellectual endeavors and despite promising myself that I’d never become a stereotypical distracted scientist, I often find myself lost in thought on the topic.

How did you connect with HealthCorps?

As a former student at UC Davis, I knew Dr. Shawn Hayes, a UC Davis alumnus and Chief Academic Officer and Director of Research and Behavioral Health at HealthCorps. He introduced me to Michelle Bouchard, President of HealthCorps, and we immediately hit it off. I described my test of HDL function to her and she immediately saw the value in this, especially to women and young people. She has been a solid friend and proponent ever since.

What specifically about HealthCorps was of interest to you – Are you working on anything that somehow relates to the teen lifestyle and mental health curriculum?

One of the biggest issues facing society’s future is the health of its young people today. Chronic and serious health issues find their roots in childhood and this in turn originates from the lifestyle behaviors and nutritional habits established at this age. Because HealthCorps is focused on changing these two basic but fundamentally important issues, they have the potential to have a major influence on the well-being of our society. Because a nation wherein a majority of its citizens are in need of some form of chronic medical intervention, will eventually fall prey to the financial burden imposed by this burden (loss of productivity, cost of medication, cost of insurance, etc).

Are you working on any new or groundbreaking efforts in the world of health?

As a result of my lab’s efforts to understand the molecular underpinnings of how HDL is the good cholesterol, we’ve discovered a means of rapidly evaluating its ability to mobilize cholesterol. This property is believed to be the central reason why HDL is the good cholesterol, because it mobilizes cholesterol and other lipids from the artery wall back to the liver and intestine for excretion. This process helps maintain proper circulation throughout the body, but most notably in the heart and brain, where occlusion is invariably a serious medical concern. The test we’ve developed requires less than a drop of blood and 15 minutes.

Currently women and children have no effective means of evaluating cardiovascular disease risk. Our test of HDL function clearly identifies poorly functioning HDL in all people, independent of age and gender. As a result, our test could dramatically alter how cardiovascular disease risk is determined. Our HDL function test is inversely correlated with the degree of cardiovascular disease present. Because HDL function steadily declines in subjects with metabolic syndrome, the test has the potential to not only evaluate cardiovascular disease risk but also monitor the progression of metabolic syndrome, a precursor to diabetes. Through this test, we hope to extend the lives of millions of people and encourage those on a pathway to health by providing them positive feedback.

Why have you decided to partner with HealthCorps, and donate a portion of your proceeds to the organization?

HealthCorps is an amazing group of folks and it’s been my privilege to have worked with them. They are passionate about what they do and they are constantly looking for ways to build upon the relationship they have formed with us. Through them, we have been enabled in our technology. Michelle Bouchard brought to us a key relationship that will allow us to bring our test to clinical reference labs soon. Prior to working with Health Corps, we had a theoretical concept but no instrumentation in which to perform the actual test. Ms. Bouchard introduced us to a major instrument manufacturer and through this we were provided instrumentation that allowed us to not only validate our test for cardiovascular disease but establish its importance in other areas of human health. We will soon launch the test through clinical reference labs in collaboration with this instrument provider. So without Health Corps the test would have been much more difficult to develop.

What is your own personal view on the current lifestyle-related health issues faced by kids, teens and adults – Are your professional efforts involved at all in helping with those public health issues?

As a scientist at the largest children’s hospital in Northern California, I am acutely aware of the existing issues relating to pediatric health. One of the biggest motivations for developing this test is to devise a means of detecting the early stages of diabetes (metabolic syndrome) in children, arguably the greatest health challenge facing children today. By doing this we have a means of stopping the onset of diabetes before it becomes a permanent condition. So as a scientist, company founder, and partner to Health Corps, my efforts are keenly focused on addressing disease early, when it can be remediated. That usually means stopping this at the root, when most chronic conditions begin, which is in childhood.

-Amy Hendel, PA/HealthCoach

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