ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Zach Zenner spent months in a laboratory in Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit a little over a year ago, spending his downtime doing research with rats instead of doing something more relaxing. That work is about to turn into something bigger, a byproduct that could alter his post-football life.
The Detroit Lions running back is the lead author on an original medical research study called "Free-radical scavenging reverses fructose-induced salt-sensitive hypertension." As long as the peer review process goes well with Dove Press, the study could be published by the end of the year, said Dr. William Beierwaltes, Zenner's boss at Henry Ford Hospital.
This is a major accomplishment.
“Huge. He’s not a medical student yet. He doesn’t have a single day,” Beierwaltes said. “So in science, the most important single thing in science is publication. And this, a real research study as opposed to a case study or a review, there’s lots of different things you can publish.
“But the gold standard is an original research study, and that’s what this will be. This will be a completely original research study. He will be the principal author. He’s the first author. It was his work. He did it all.”
This is rare, according to Beierwaltes and Dr. Noreen Rossi, Zenner’s boss during his research this past offseason at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Detroit. Most medical students don’t have studies like this on their resume. Beierwaltes said some of his colleagues for more than a decade have not authored a publication like Zenner’s.
And this could be the first of multiple publications for Zenner, who eventually could have his work from Rossi’s lab this year end up in a journal too.
“Very exciting,” Zenner said. “It was very exciting just to have the opportunity to submit something for publication, and it’s really the culmination of the work that you’ve put in -- and that, even though the journey was very important and the learning and everything, that’s what you put on the resume, so to speak.”
Zenner’s work centered around finding different answers to questions surrounding hypertension and blood pressure within high-fructose, glucose and salt diets.
He did this in both Rossi’s and Beierwaltes’ labs. For the 2016 study, Zenner handled all the methods for testing hypertension and blood pressure in rats by using fructose and high-salt diets. Zenner developed the methods used, which examined whether a drug called Tempol could curb the onset of hypertension – and, potentially, diabetes. He also used a urine marker called 8-isoprostane to measure the formation of free radicals. The use of the scavenger Tempol -- which also is found in high-antioxidant foods such as blueberries -- helped eliminate the quick onset of hypertension.
The findings, in theory, eventually could help slow the rate of one type of hypertension and diabetes. Beierwaltes said the study helped the researchers understand what is causing one type of hypertension and how they can potentially solve it. The study could help teach people how to change their diets.
“The important thing is to understand why,” Beierwaltes said. “Now that we have a feeling and understanding of why this may be, now we can say, ‘Yeah, OK, this may change our strategies.’”
Zenner was part of a three-person team on the study, along with Beierwaltes and Kevin Gordish. A prior study, and eventually a paper, published by Gordish and Beierwaltes helped give them the initial idea for this work.
As the study developed, Zenner recorded everything he did so he could write the methods section. Zenner submitted his work to Beierwaltes, who edited it, tweaked some language to "research-ese," and wrote the abstract and the discussion sections.
“My boss did most of that for a number of reasons,” Zenner said. “One, it was a combination of not just my work but someone else’s work, so I don’t have the capability to write about his. Two, with that short time frame, he didn’t expect me to write that whole discussion process up, although I was certainly involved in discussions with him about what it was going to be about, and if we see this, this is what we’re going to discuss and things like that.”
Those discussions led to the paper and, potentially, to Zenner’s first publication. While his study from this offseason could be published as well, he’s not focused on that for now. That’s a side bonus for the future -- and he has an invitation to return to Rossi’s lab after this season.
Zenner’s primary concern now is making the Lions for the third straight season and becoming more of a contributor. But he has a post-football blueprint. Zenner still plans to go to medical school after his NFL career concludes -- he’s open to what he’ll specialize in. He has been accepted to the Sanford School of Medicine at the University of South Dakota, and he has deferred his enrollment.
The medical research he’s been doing has kept him sharp. Being published? That will only help.