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Tom Brenna, Ph.D.


Ph.D., Analytical Chemistry
Cornell University


Tom Brenna is a professor of pediatrics at Dell Medical School. He moved to Austin after 28 years as a professor of human nutrition, chemistry, chemical biology and food science at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. His group’s basic research into the chemical, biochemical, metabolic, genetic and ecological aspects of fatty acids have had a decisive influence on modern knowledge of these key nutrients.

Brenna’s research couples nutrition and chemistry in a broadly interdisciplinary program. His research group has been funded by institutes and centers at the National Institutes of Health (National Institute of General Medical Sciences, National Eye Institute, Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health) since 1992. Most of the work of the Brenna Lab is translational, tying basic research to biomedicine and human nutrition.

Some studies are designed with particular, topical human health questions in mind, and these studies have occasionally had immediate implications. The most prominent examples of this work are animal studies to evaluate the efficacy, safety and metabolism of food sources of polyunsaturated fatty acids. This work often employs stable isotope tracer techniques and molecular or isotope ratio mass spectrometry to probe metabolism.

Other projects, particularly those that develop instrumentation and methods for mass spectrometry techniques, have a longer-term payoff. They are sometimes undertaken for the challenge of making measurements that have never been possible previously, with an eye toward eventual applications. An example of this area is the development of a novel gas phase reaction for derivatization of polyunsaturated fatty acids for facile determination of double-bond structure, which has found applications associated with safety of edible oils, including identification of novel fatty acids.

More recent research is on nutrition of saturated branched-chain fatty acids, a neglected class of dietary fatty acids. Other work involves development of methods for more precise and rapid detection of endogenous performance-enhancing drugs, particularly testosterone, as well as methods for detecting exogenous drugs.

Brenna has served on numerous national and international advisory panels on human nutrition. He was a member of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee appointed by the U.S. secretaries of Health and Human Services and of Agriculture. He is currently past president of the International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids, a board member of Seafood Nutrition Partnership and on the scientific advisory board for the Institute for Food, Brain and Behaviour. Additionally, he is the deputy editor of the British Journal of Nutrition and on the editorial board for Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry.

Brenna is the fourth person to have received both the Osborne and Mendel Award (2017) for outstanding basic research and the Robert Herman Memorial Award (2013) for important contributions to clinical nutrition research from the American Society for Nutrition.

Specifically, Brenna’s research group is concerned with three areas: requirements for polyunsaturated fatty acids in the perinatal period; development of advanced analytical chemical instrumentation, particularly mass spectrometry, for biomedical applications; and development of high-precision isotope ratio mass spectrometry for anti-doping applications.

The polyunsaturated fatty acid work focuses on factors that influence demand for omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, notably prematurity, and most studies are conducted in nonhuman primates. The instrumentation work aims at development of high-precision isotope ratio mass spectrometry for tracer applications and for detection of natural physiological isotopic fractionation. Stable isotope tracer studies of omega-3 fatty acids focus on brain and associated organ development and on improvement of mass spectrometry–based instrumentation for fatty acid studies. Ongoing research involves improvements to instrumentation for analysis of performance-enhancing steroids in the context of elite athletics.

Recent work shows that human omega-3 DHA synthesis is by 4-desaturation mediated by the FADS2 gene; the saturated fatty acid palmitic acid can interfere with the polyunsaturated fatty acid access to FADS2 desaturation and endogenous long-chain PUFA synthesis required for membrane structure and lipid-derived signaling compounds; balanced omega-6 and omega-3 PUFA in Read-To-Use Therapeutic Foods used in recovery from severe acute malnutrition is required to support endogenous DHA biosynthesis needed for brain development.

Brenna’s publications can be found at PubMed and at Google Scholar.