Like many who have devoted their lives to global public health, Dr. Richard Deckelbaum is regularly challenged by the lack of financial commitment shown by the international community to make modest investments for drastic improvements in people’s lives. He has a hard time believing that governments cannot see—or simply choose to ignore—that nutrition and health are key components to stronger economies and more harmonious societies. Lucky for the world’s poor, he hasn’t given up.
In his 40+ years as a medical doctor for those who need him most, Deckelbaum has helped communities help themselves by improving local education, training and research. He has done much with limited resources. In a career filled with many great milestones, he says, “One of my proudest accomplishments is helping establish the first children’s hospital in the West Bank of Jordan.” Deckelbaum also organized research programs between the Egyptian, Palestinian and Israeli populations, using health and science as a bridge between different populations in the Mideast, Africa and Asia.
Deckelbaum is the Robert R. Williams Professor of Nutrition, a professor of Pediatrics, a professor of Epidemiology in the Mailman School of Public Health, and the director of the Institute of Human Nutrition at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. He serves the Earth Institute as a member of the Academic Committee.
The major focus of Deckelbaum’s laboratory is to determine regulatory mechanisms for cell-lipid particle interaction, cell cholesterol and triglyceride metabolism, and lipid-related gene expression. “In other words, we look into how omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oils relate on the molecular level to their beneficial effects in terms of prevention of cardiovascular disease and as anti-inflammatory agents.”
Current projects are defining the effects of lipid particle properties on metabolism in the whole animal and with cells via receptor-mediated and receptor-independent pathways. Deckelbaum’s laboratory has demonstrated that substantial amounts of lipoproteins and lipid emulsions can enter cells by receptor-independent pathways. Integrated with these studies are studies on how different lipids, especially free fatty acids and various sphingolipids, modulate sterol regulatory element binding protein (SREBP) mediated gene expression, focusing on genes affecting cell and whole body triglycerides and cholesterol homeostasis.
“On the molecular side, we relate the modalities to prevent heart disease and stroke through nutriceutical approaches like omega-3 fatty acids,” Deckelbaum says of the benefits of his research. One of his major areas of research interest is the role of triglyceride fatty acyl composition on modulating interaction of model lipid triglyceride-rich particles with apoprotein E and subsequent effects on cell and tissue metabolism in vitro, and in vivo in mouse models. Deckelbaum’s group is demonstrating that triglyceride-rich particles enriched in long chain omega-3 triglycerides do not enter tissues via classic receptor-dependent pathways but rather via other mechanisms which might relate to binding to non-receptor domains on the cell surface, such as phagocytosis or pinocytosis.
He coordinates programs related to the effects of varying nutrient intakes on expression of cardiovascular risk factors in children of different genetic backgrounds in both national and international studies. Overall, an important objective of Deckelbaum’s program is to develop investigators who can translate basic nutritional questions into basic lipid and cellular biology.
With his research, Deckelbaum brings attention to the underserved communities and the underdeveloped nations with his work on global health task forces. “I’ve initiated programs to understand why many nutrition programs are unsuccessful in terms of preventing undernutrition, as well as obesity and overweightness, which are co-morbidities.” His efforts emphasize the need for a more substantial and sustainable nutrition program in countries that need the most aid. It is a change that will eventually lead to a systemic difference in the lifestyles of poorer societies. “The economic benefits of better nutrition and health are very underappreciated by government leaders in many nations,” Deckelbaum notes. “We want to eventually decrease the personal and economic costs of under and overnutrition,” foresees Deckelbaum.
In his philanthropic role, Deckelbaum has chaired task forces for the American Heart Association and the March of Dimes, and has served advisory committees of the National Institutes of Health, RAND Corporation, and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences.
Deckelbaum is widely published in medical and scientific journals such as Biochemistry, the Journal of Biological Chemistry and Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, and is a regular author in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Deckelbaum earned his B.S. in 1963 from McGill University where he followed with a M.D. and C.M. as well by 1967.