UTHSC’s Qi Zhao, MD, PhD, Using New Technology To Research Markers of Future Muscle Loss in Older Adults

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Dr. Qi Zhao (Photo by Allen Gillespie/UTHSC)

Qi Zhao, MD, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Preventive Medicine at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, has been awarded approximately $3 million to research improvements in the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of sarcopenia.

Characterized by the age-related, involuntary loss of muscle mass and strength, sarcopenia is one of the primary causes of physical functional decline and loss of independence in older adults. The causes of sarcopenia are largely unknown and no FDA-approved medications are currently available to treat this ailment. With a growing older adult population in the United States, Dr. Zhao asserts that time is of the essence when researching this condition.

“Aging is an important area to look into right now. You hear people mention dementia a lot, but I think sarcopenia is also important to study,” Dr. Zhao said. “Simply put, if your physical function declines, it will absolutely affect your overall quality of life as you get older.”

Dr. Zhao’s study will examine indicators associated with sarcopenia-related traits such as muscle mass, strength, and function in adults over the age of 60, using a state-of-the-art metabolomics approach. Dr. Zhao will identify new groups of small molecules associated with these key traits, helping discover new metabolic pathways that can be targeted for medication testing.

Her study will investigate these sarcopenia-related traits by measuring the lean mass / body mass index ratio, hand grip strength, and usual walking gait speed in older adults, which may shed light on novel predictors of the condition. Dr. Zhao hopes her findings can shift focus toward an illness that has been neglected by researchers in recent years.

“When I started looking into sarcopenia, I kept noticing that people overlooked it in their studies and that didn’t make any sense to me,” Dr. Zhao said. “Bone, fat, and muscle are the three main components of body composition, and there have been a lot of studies done around bone and fat, but not for muscle, which is worrying.”

Dr. Zhao’s project entitled “Identification of Metabolomic Profiles for Sarcopenia Traits in Older Whites and Blacks,” is being funded by the National Institutes of Health for five years. She is a 2019 CORNET Award Winner and was a faculty member at Tulane University before joining UTHSC in August 2017.