Accomplished authors and scientists in disease prevention, epidemiology, toxicology, biochemistry, and occupational and environmental health sciences, the late Alice and Fred Ottoboni were committed to improving public health through research and education. Both held doctorate degrees — Alice in comparative biochemistry from the University of California, Davis and Fred in occupational and environmental health sciences from the University of California, Berkeley — and went on to become preeminent leaders in their fields, writing books independently and as a couple.
Published in 2002, the Ottobonis’ book “The Modern Nutritional Diseases: Heart Disease, Stroke, Type-2 Diabetes, Obesity, Cancer, and How to Prevent Them” took a close look at how the “heart-healthy” American diet evolved over the previous century, yet cases of these diseases failed to decrease and even grew into major epidemics.
Passionate about helping improve public health and sharing how diet and lifestyle changes can impact disease, the Ottoboni Trust established two endowed chairs — one in diet and disease prevention and another in meat science.
“Fred and Alice wanted to make sure their gift had a long-lasting and far-reaching impact — not just in a single college but across our campus, state and beyond,” said Bill Payne, dean of the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology & Natural Resources. “Both Fred and Alice were remarkable individuals, whom I had the pleasure to know for several years. Alice was among the very earliest women to earn a Ph.D. in biochemistry, at a time when the discipline was overwhelmingly male-dominated, and females were discouraged from entering. Fred had an expansive, curious mind, even well into his 90s. In addition to biochemistry and health, he wrote on anything from his days in the military in pre-war Korea, to how to invest wisely in the stock market and the leadership style of Ronald Reagan, for whom he served in California state government.”
Payne continued, “These new chairs and the research this generous gift supports will resonate for years to come, while growing our college as a national leader in improving public health through leading-edge diet and nutrition research. We shall be forever grateful to the Ottobonis.”
Alice & Fred Ottoboni Endowed Chair in Diet and Disease Prevention Robert Ryan
“The fact that Alice and Fred would endow a chair in this research is a game changer; it affords us all kinds of opportunities to make breakthroughs,” said Robert Ryan ’77 (medical sciences), ’82 Ph.D. (biochemistry), professor and chair of the Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology. “We continue to publish and carry out studies, but to know we have reliable funds that can support our lab in between grants and help fill gaps is a major benefit. This instills a lot of energy into our research team and allows us to pursue new ideas — and in my opinion, that is when discoveries are made, when you can explore ideas and bring them to fruition.”
Much like the Ottobonis, Ryan has committed his life to understanding disease and what can be done to prevent it — specifically when it comes to lipid metabolism disorders in children and adults and increased risk of heart disease. Ryan’s research first began as a doctoral student at Nevada and has continued throughout his 40-year career at The University of Arizona, University of Alberta and UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospitals, before rejoining CABNR in 2017.
Over the past 15 years, Ryan’s research has specialized in better understanding a rare, life-threatening disorder called Barth syndrome. Caused by a genetic mutation that leads to defective lipid metabolism, this disorder, which predominantly occurs in young males, can lead to dilated cardiomyopathy and the need for a heart transplant. Thanks to growing research into Barth syndrome, life expectancy has grown from just 3 years of age to adulthood, but sadly the impact on physical health remains high.
“Metabolism of lipids and carbohydrates provide energy required to perform work in our bodies, including heart muscle contraction. In the case of people with Barth syndrome, we discovered that an alternate metabolic pathway is activated that produces organic acid waste products rather than energy. By furthering our knowledge of lipids and metabolism, we can better understand this and other disease processes,” Ryan said. “Both Fred and Alice were dedicated individuals who believed in education and the dissemination of knowledge. Through this position and research support, we can carry on this legacy and make inroads in the areas they felt were important to health and disease prevention.”
Alice & Fred Ottoboni Endowed Chair in Meat Science Amilton de Mello
Associate Professor Amilton de Mello knew of Fred Ottoboni’s legacy long before being bestowed this new title. “Fred was ahead of everyone during his time. When he passed, although he left his scientific legacy, it was a huge loss for our industry. How am I going to honor carrying on what he did in his life? I want to make sure we use this gift to better understand the role of meat in the diet and how its molecular nutrients modulate human health and chronic diseases,” said de Mello.
After receiving his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from the University of Marilia, a master’s in animal product technology from São Paulo State University and a doctorate in meat science and muscle biology from University of Nebraska, de Mello joined Nevada’s Department of Agriculture, Veterinary & Rangeland Sciences in 2015. A couple years later, de Mello started studying the effects of nutrients in meat and how they can improve health. “This goes back to Fred’s research, that’s the great thing. We are focusing on how RNA from animal meat can benefit or harm humans who eat it,” de Mello explained.
By studying small pieces of meat and absorption rates in mice, the Nevada Meat Science Lab recently presented evidence that the beef RNA we consume by eating red meat can survive digestion and be absorbed. “This means beef RNA is circulating in your blood after eating, which could have major applications on the future of nutrition. Once we identify the optimal molecular composition of meats, we will be able to improve it for better nutrition in humans,” de Mello added. “The statement ‘from farm to table’ is obsolete. Now we’re talking ‘from farm to public health.’ It started as knowing the food producer. It’s expanded to economic issues, sustainability and now people need to understand how the meat was produced and how meat consumption really impacts their health.”
“This is a catalyst to create great things at Nevada”
Both professors agree these positions are only the beginning of the impact this generous gift will have on our campus and state.
“The University has huge potential to be an agricultural powerhouse. We have an opportunity to grow and get better in meat science,” de Mello said. “At national events, I’m often the only Nevada representative. We need to create a team that can build our reputation. I want to make sure this place grows and is recognized. We have the opportunity to expand thanks to this gift.”
“We’re not ending at this professorship. We’re growing an entire team to create a nucleus in health and disease research to achieve national and international recognition that helps us recruit the best and brightest students and faculty,” Ryan explained. “The Ottobonis donated for the greater good, and we believe this small seed will blossom into a large oak tree for research, for the University and for the health and well-being of Nevadans. This is a catalyst to create great things at Nevada.”
For more information on making a planned gift, visit unrlegacy.org or contact Brian Saeman, J.D. ’98, director of planned giving, at (775) 682-5938. To support CABNR, contact Zack Madonick ’11, executive director of development, at (775) 682-6041.