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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — Targeting a primary cause of heart disease might be enough for one research lifetime, but Fred Kummerow doesn't rest on past glory.
The biochemist who was the first to pinpoint the heart risks of trans fats in processed foods — and challenge long-held theories about the role of dietary cholesterol — is turning his attention to two other debilitating diseases: Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.
At age 99. Almost 100, in fact (on Oct. 4).
Kummerow, an emeritus professor of comparative biosciences at the University of Illinois, officially retired more than a quarter-century ago, at age 71.
But he's kept up his lab and is still sending out grant proposals.
"My research has been on heart disease, but I've finished that. I've found the answer," he says. "Now I'm working on problems in the brain."
Kummerow doesn't stop to think about his age.
"Nobody knows when he's going to die. And I have no idea," he says.
He's not wasting any time. Most days he's busy churning out papers with help from his primary aide, nursing assistant Lou Ann Carper from Diversified Health Services.
"She does the typing and the arguing," he says.
Poverty to Fort Knox
Kummerow was born a century ago in Berlin and moved to the United States with his family in 1923, when his dad was invited to take a job at a block factory in Milwaukee. The factory closed in the Depression, and Kummerow grew up in poverty.
He worked odd jobs after high school, including at Miller Brewery, to save enough to attend college. He was only able to get through with help from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's National Youth Administration, which funded university jobs for students. He was assigned to a biochemistry lab and was mentored by a professor there, eventually winning an assistantship and graduating with a chemistry degree. He started working with the professor and moved his parents to Madison, where they both got jobs at the university. (His mom lived to be 97.)
He later worked as a nutrition scientist at Clemson University, where he developed a method to add niacin to grits to combat a disease known as pellagra, caused by a niacin deficiency. People were eating lots of corn and pork fat, but eggs, milk and meat were scarce. Kummerow and his colleagues found a macaroni manufacturer who ground the vitamins with macaroni dough, and "they looked just like corn grits."
He took a job at Kansas State from 1945 to 1950, but was later fired "because I didn't tell the department head what I was doing."
"He's not a good rule follower," Carper notes.
Kummerow caught the UI's attention after he received a citation from the Army at Fort Knox for research that solved a problem with frozen turkeys. It seems the birds would turn rancid when shipped overseas because they were fed linseed. Kummerow fed them corn instead, and the taste was preserved.
He joined the UI faculty in 1950.
Pioneer and contrarian
In the 1950s, using samples of arteries from patients who had died of heart attacks, he discovered that the diseased arteries were filled with artificial fatty acids called trans fats — hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils found in margarine and 30,000 processed foods, Kummerow says.
That accumulation causes blood vessels to take up calcium more easily, leading to blockages, he says. Trans fats also prevent the synthesis of a lipid called prostacyclin, which causes blood clots.
His findings were not widely accepted for decades. But last November, the Food and Drug Administration proposed banning trans fats in foods. Kummerow had petitioned the agency to do so in 2009 and threatened a lawsuit in 2013 unless it acted. The industry is still fighting that proposal, arguing that a little trans fat isn't a bad thing. He begs to differ.
His position on cholesterol and animal fats puts him at odds with other scientists. He says foods with saturated fats, such as butter, are beneficial in small doses, because they contain amino acids essential for the body.
Animal fats also have cholesterol, which is why physicians urge patients to limit fats in their diet or use vegetable fats instead.
But Kummerow has been arguing since the 1970s that cholesterol is not the problem. It's the oxidation of fats that causes damage to the body, he says.
Fats are oxidized when they're overheated, usually in commercial fryers — for french fries, fried chicken, etc. They turn into compounds that aren't metabolized correctly by enzymes in the liver, he says.
"The way we use our food is complex. You've got to get the right food in your mouth so your body can work normally," he says.
The theory applies to the brain as well as the heart, he says. The brain is 20 percent protein and 80 percent fat. Oxidized fats destroy dopamine, which is involved in Parkinson's disease, he says.
Kummerow hopes to work with Carle Foundation Hospital to take blood samples from patients with Alzheimer's and Parkinson's to test for two suspect compounds involved in oxidation. If he finds them, he hopes to work with dietitians to alter the patients' diets.
The big holdup is money. He is working with a firm in Silicon Valley that has provided $25,000, but he needs to raise another $15,000 by Oct. 15 to continue his research. He has grant proposals out, and Carle has shown interest but hasn't committed money yet, he says.
The cause is close to his heart. His wife, Amy Kummerow, who served on the Champaign County Board for 20 years and was a Democratic candidate for Congress, died of Parkinson's disease two years ago. The two met in graduate school and were married for 70 years.
Advice for retirees
"Eat a decent diet, exercise every day and keep your brain functioning. Keep thinking. After you retire, don't just sit back and do nothing," he said.
When he was younger, Kummerow would bike two miles to the lab and back home every day, and swim for an hour at lunchtime. He had to stop swimming after he hurt his knee at the pool — two years ago. At age 97.
His morning routine now involves getting up at 8, showering, eating breakfast, working and then exercising for an hour before lunch — 10 laps around the house.
He eats a scrambled egg (in a teaspoon of butter) every morning, plus a spoonful of cooked oatmeal and wheatberries, some yogurt, a sprinkle of chopped nuts, a banana and other fruit.
Lunch always includes some kind of meat or protein, perhaps a potato, fruit, and lots of vegetables. He doesn't eat crackers (trans fats) and limits himself to whole grain breads. Supper is the same, with smaller portions.
He drinks whole milk with all three meals. You need animal fat so your stomach can absorb the fat-soluble vitamin A, D and E in the milk, he argues.
He is his own best advertisement, looking two or three decades younger than his age. While he uses a wheelchair because of his knee, he takes no medications, other than vitamins.
As for his birthday plans: he's throwing a party for Ann Callis, Democratic candidate for state representative.
"It's kind of a fundraiser for both of us," he says.
Source: The (Champaign) News-Gazette, http://bit.ly/YbPIQc
Information from: The News-Gazette, http://www.news-gazette.com
This is an Illinois Exchange story shared by The (Champaign) News-Gazette.
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