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A University of Tennessee nutritionist who uncovered the role of calcium in controlling obesity has been awarded the 2004 Wheeley Award for his work in commercializing the results of his research.

Dr. Michael Zemel

Dr. Michael Zemel, director of the UT Nutrition Institute, was selected from among nominees throughout the UT system. The award recognizes excellence in transferring UT research developments into the commercial sector.

Zemel’s research shows that calcium within the cell is involved in controlling the creation of fat in cells. Calcium receptors on the cells control whether a cell stores fat or breaks it down and channels control of whether calcium is admitted into the cell.

Zemel holds four U.S. patents on the cell receptors and channels he identified. He also has done clinical research on humans that shows that the calcium and related compounds in dairy products are more effective than calcium from nondairy sources.

“This evidence for a new weapon in the battle of the bulge comes at a good time,” said Dr. John Hopkins, UT director of technology transfer, who nominated Zemel for the award. “Because obesity is linked to an increased risk of several chronic diseases, the current prevalence of obesity poses a serious public health problem.”

Hopkins said that Zemel actively promoted public awareness of the health benefits of his findings and identified commercial collaborators to develop the research. A biotechnology firm in North Carolina has licensed two of his patents and is working on pharmaceutical applications of the research. The National Dairy Council and Dairy Management Inc. have made Zemel’s research the cornerstone of new marketing campaigns that stress the health benefits of milk products.

The $7,500 prize was established by B. Otto and Katherine Wheeley to recognize and encourage technology transfer. Wheeley, a UT graduate, was deputy chairman of the Koppers Co. and president of Kopvenco, its venture capital subsidiary. He founded Venture First Associations and has worked with the university to promote commercial development of university research. Seven faculty have received the award since it was established in 1989.

Zemel will receive the award at a noon luncheon on Oct. 28 in the University Club Ballroom. Karen Hersey, retired senior counsel on intellectual property from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will speak at the awards luncheon.

Hersey, who has worked for MIT and North Carolina State University, is owner of Partneringworks and a lecturer at Franklin Pierce Law Center in New Hampshire.