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January 06, 2015 | Tom Ballard

PART 1: Michael Zemel upbeat about the region and NuSirt Biopharma

NuSirt Biopharma(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a three-part series focused on Michael Zemel, Chief Scientific Officer of NuSirt Biopharma, a company founded on research undertaken by Zemel while he was on the faculty of the University of Tennessee {UT}. It is also part of an ongoing series spotlighting start-ups founded on technologies licensed from the UT Research Foundation.)

By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.

Michael Zemel is not from around here, but you would never know it if you listened to the seemingly always upbeat scientist talk about the region, his lifetime of work in metabolism, and the great progress that NuSirt Biopharma is making.

The company has licensed intellectual property (IP) from the University of Tennessee Research Foundation (UTRF), based on Zemel’s work while he was on the faculty. The company has since altered its focus, but the pivot has not affected Zemel’s optimism.

We caught-up with the energetic scientist recently at the company’s laboratory that is located in the Fairview Technology Center, a business incubator operated by the Development Corporation of Knoxville. NuSirt’s corporate office is in Nashville.

During an interview that lasted longer than an hour, we were inspired by Zemel’s passion for his work and the community he has adopted.

“Most of my career has been built around energy and metabolism,” he explained.

Zemel was on the faculty of Wayne State University in Detroit when he was recruited to lead the Department of Nutrition at UT’s Knoxville campus.

“One of my goals was to build a molecular nutrition program to address chronic diseases associated with nutrition,” Zemel said. Two of the most well-known are diabetes and cardiovascular.

Soon after arriving on campus, the Department Head had developed some IP that was patented by the UT Research Corporation, predecessor to UTRF. Near the end of the decade, Zemel was focused on how diet affects the endocrine system which, in turn, affects cell calcium signaling.

“We decided that dietary calcium might play a role,” he explained.

Enter General Mills, the maker of Yoplait Yogurt, which was basing its advertising on the very claims that Zemel’s research had validated. The corporate giant ended-up executing a license that allowed it to make the claims in the ads.

“I was thereafter known as the Calcium Guy,” Zemel told us in his humorous way.

This revelation only scratched the surface.

“As we dug deeper, we came onto something that was very different,” he recalled. That revelation centered on amino acids and the source of the energy that is required to fuel the build-up of proteins.

“Where does that energy come from,” Zemel recalls asking. The answer to the “fire” question was the breakdown of fats.

NEXT: Where the research took NuSirt.

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