Pathologist studies intersection of tuberculosis and diabetes

color photo of researcher Brendan Podell in the lab

Dr. Brendan Podell earned doctorates in veterinary medicine and pathology from Colorado State University and joined a world-class team of researchers in the Mycobacteria Research Laboratories.

Brendan Podell came to Colorado State University from the East Coast to study microbiology as an undergraduate because he was interested in skiing. He stayed after developing a passion for research, through his work at the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratories.

Podell went on to earn doctorates in veterinary medicine and pathology from CSU and joined a world-class team of researchers in the Mycobacteria Research Laboratories. These days, he joked that he has a little less free time to hit the slopes.

Now an assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Pathology, he studies the intersection of tuberculosis and diabetes, with an eye towards determining what drugs might be used to treat both diseases together. He works closely with Professor Randy Basaraba, who served as a mentor dating back to his days in the “D Lab.”

Research Excellence

Dr. Brendan Podell is the recipient of the 2017 Zoetis Research Excellence Award and will kick off 2018 Research Day with a keynote address, “The pathologic intersection of tuberculosis and metabolic disease” at 11:30 a.m on Saturday, January 20 in the Lory Student Center. Global animal health company Zoetis sponsors Research Day and the Research Excellence Award.

On Jan. 20, Podell will receive the Zoetis Research Excellence Award from the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. He will also serve as the guest faculty speaker at its annual Research Day.

Drawn to research, medicine

Podell was not accepted into CSU’s Doctor of Veterinary Medicine program on his first try, at age 22. At the time, he said he was quite disappointed. “When you’re that age, you… can’t see the other side of the fence,” he said.

But, it was better for him in the long run to not get in that first year. “I wouldn’t have made the connections I made in the D Lab, and wouldn’t have ended up in a research career,” Podell explained.

As a research associate in the lab, he worked a lot of hours during what would be a gap year, before he started his graduate studies. Podell said he quickly learned that he really enjoyed basic science, lab research and molecular biology, exploring the interactions between DNA, RNA and proteins in cells.

He was accepted into CSU’s D.V.M. program the second time around, and continued to work up to 30 hours a week in the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratories. He received his D.V.M. in 2008 and enrolled in a program at CSU in which he completed a veterinary medicine residency and doctoral degree in pathology.

a color photo of three CSU researchers in the lab, discussing tuberculosis research
Researchers Adam Chicco (left), Brendan Podell and Randy Basaraba collaborate on tuberculosis research.

His path to becoming a researcher was set, and he continued to work with Basaraba, who served as an advisor and mentor.

Podell and Basaraba made an interesting discovery early on that influences their work today.

The research team saw how simply giving lab animals a sugar solution worsened the progression of tuberculosis disease.

“It was fortuitous, and got all of this research started,” Podell said. It opened the door for the team to probe the impact of metabolism and sugar on inflammatory diseases, like TB.

Basaraba, a distinguished researcher in his own right, said he admires Podell’s fearlessness and his focused approach to problem-solving.

“Brendan possesses a combination of qualities that are essential for a successful career in research,” he said. “Besides his exceptional intellect, he is tenacious and is unafraid to take on technical and conceptual challenges to answer important scientific questions. Science is not for the faint-hearted, in that there are small successes which are usually out-numbered by failed experiments, rejected grants and manuscripts. Brendan doesn’t allow scientific setbacks to interfere with his quest for answers.”

Dual burden of TB, diabetes a threat for many in developing countries

The dual diagnosis of TB and diabetes affects many people in developing countries, a fact that isn’t commonly known. India, for example, is one of 30 high-burden countries for tuberculosis, designated by the World Health Organization. The country also has the highest frequency of diabetes in the world. The International Diabetes Federation estimates that the number of people with diabetes in India and Southeast Asia will increase from 82 million in 2017 to 151 million in 2045.

The conditions are also a challenge to study, with many unanswered questions, including: should clinicians treat people with existing drugs or look at antimicrobials, and should they target diabetes first, get that under control and then target TB in people who are affected by both?

Very few scientists know how to make a model that can replicate the diseases together. Enter Podell, who helped create an animal model of this dual burden as part of his doctoral dissertation.

“We now have the only validated model of this comorbidity, or what happens when a person has both chronic diseases of diabetes and tuberculosis,” he said. As a result, researchers at CSU are studying how these diseases interact in order to learn how to treat these conditions when they occur together.

Dr. Susan VandeWoude, associate dean for Research and Graduate Education in the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, said Podell is a versatile researcher whose work is original and creative.

“His studies have improved our understanding of complex diseases like diabetes and tuberculosis,” she said. “He is an excellent teacher and collaborator, and a future leader in diagnostic and investigative pathology.”

Podell’s research remains focused on immune disease mechanisms, and what makes people more susceptible to developing TB and diabetes. This research has opened new opportunities for collaboration with Basaraba and physicians who work with human patients, to explore different and alternative treatment approaches for tuberculosis.

Collaboration beyond campus

In 2015, Podell launched the Experimental Pathology Facility, which provides support for researchers under an initiative from the Office of the Vice President for Research. The facility aims to help researchers better use pathology to understand the outcomes of diseases.

“We’ve made a lot of contributions and created collaborations through that facility that don’t necessarily relate to TB at all,” said Podell, who shares administrative duties with Dr. Kelly Santangelo, assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Pathology.

What’s his advice for aspiring researchers? “Keep an open mind,” he said. “I tried to be focused, at first, and to force myself into a career path that wasn’t for me.”

Many of the students Podell has worked with have gone on to medical or veterinary medicine schools, and some have ended up in research careers. One former student is in law school, and hopes to become a lobbyist for research.

“Your experience is shaped by something you enjoy or don’t enjoy,” said Podell. “Try not to rush things.”