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Gary K. Beauchamp, PhD – Director of Monell Chemical Senses Center

By Admin | January 14, 2008

Dr. Gary Beauchamp is the director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. Known to Philly residents by the iconic statue of a nose in front of the building on Monell’s West Philadelphia campus, the Center (celebrating their 40th anniversary this year) is a world leader in the study of taste and smell. Dr. Beauchamp gives us some thoughts.


Where are you from?

I was born and grew up in the Midwest. Most of my childhood and adolescence was spent in suburban Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Where did you go to college and what was your academic major? What is your PhD in and where did you get that?

I majored in biology at Carleton College in Northfield Minnesota. After that I spent a year at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT and then went to the University of Chicago, where I received a PhD in biopsychology, which at that time was a new program devoted to understanding the biological basis of behavior.

What has been your career path from your PhD to Director of the Monell Center?

One of my professors at Chicago, Peter Grossman, was a friend and colleague of Morley R. Kare, who was in the process of setting up a new research center dedicated to understanding the mechanisms and functions of the chemical senses (taste, smell and chemesthesis – the word used to describe tactile sensations induced by chemicals, such as the burn of chili pepper or the cooling of menthol).

Pete suggested I consider a post-doc at this new organization and so I did. Morley offered me a position, along with an empty room in a new building to set up a laboratory.

My plan was to stay a year or perhaps two at most to begin my own research program and then move on to get a “real” academic job.

This time frame was extended as my wife completed her PhD at Penn and one thing led to another and I now have been at Monell for 37 years.

What is the history of the Monell Center? Why was it founded? What is it’s mission?

The idea behind Monell’s founding was that there were many places and institutes that studied the “major” senses of hearing and vision and even touch, but none devoted exclusively to the chemical senses.

It was thought that this was due to their being considered minor and relatively unimportant; certainly, it is true that loss of taste or smell is less catastrophic overall than blindness or deafness.

Nevertheless, Monell’s founders argued that these senses are in fact extremely important in regulating food choice and intake, and also social behavior.

Taste and smell also play important roles in monitoring the environment and provide a rich source of sensory pleasure.

Thus, it was proposed that these senses merited their own specialized research organization with a mission to conduct multidisciplinary research into their basic mechanisms and functions.

This idea was the brainchild of Morley Kare, a professor in the veterinary school at the North Carolina State University, Henry G. Walter, the CEO of International Flavors and Fragrances, a company that specialized in commercial production of tastes and smells, and several other farsighted individuals.

Hank Walter was also a board member of the Ambrose Monell Foundation and he secured a pledge from the Foundation to help pay for a building to house the new institute.

After considering several possible universities as a home, the Monell Chemical Senses Center was formally established in 1968 as a research center at Penn. Ten years later, Monell separated from Penn and now operates as a private nonprofit institute.

Where does your funding come from? Do you undertake research projects for industry? For the military?

From its inception, Monell has been supported by a variety of sources. Currently about 50% of the funds come from the US government, with the vast majority of this coming from competitive NIH research grants.

Monell also receives grant and contract support from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Veterans Administration (VA), and the Department of Defense (DoD).

The Center receives about 40% of its budget from industry. Of this, about half is in the form of unrestricted gifts from over 50 flavor, fragrance, food, pharmaceutical and personal product companies from all over the world.

This annual support from industry allows the Center to initiate new programs, hire new faculty, and support junior scientists as they begin their careers.

The other half of the industry support comes from collaborative research projects. These projects involve basic research questions of interest to Monell scientists that also have an applied component.

Monell’s scientists retain the right to publish any findings when projects are completed, which is the typical academic rule for industry-sponsored research.

The remaining 10% of the annual budget comes from foundation (the Monell Foundation continues to provide major support) and individual gifts.

What is the current relationship between Monell and the University of Pennsylvania?

Although Monell has operated as an independent 501(C)3 (non-profit) research organization for the past 30 years, the Center was a part of Penn from its founding until 1978.

Monell continues to have very close ties with Penn, facilitated by its location on the edge of the Penn campus in the University City Science Center. The Center’s small Board of Directors includes several individuals with Penn affiliations (the Board’s immediate past Chair was, until his death in 2007, Martin Meyerson, emeritus President of Penn).

Many Monell faculty have adjunct appointments in appropriate departments at Penn and Penn students conduct research projects at Monell. Perhaps most importantly, there are many research collaborations between Monell and Penn scientists.

What is the relationship between Monell and Thomas Jefferson University?

But Monell does not restrict its collaborations to Penn. In collaboration with Thomas Jefferson University, scientists and physician-scientists at the Monell-Jefferson Chemosensory Clinical Research Center seek to characterize and understand the causes of taste and smell disorders and to develop treatment strategies.

Continuously funded since 1986, the Monell-Jefferson CCRC is the only such center currently supported by the NIH. The Taste and Smell Clinic where patients are seen and where some of the clinical research projects are conducted is housed at the Department of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.

What are some of your current research projects?

With a faculty that consists of about 23 Principle Investigators and over 60 PhD scientists, Monell is home to a wide variety of research projects. The following examples illustrate the scope of these efforts and the Center’s multidisciplinary emphasis.

Several projects are being conducted to identify genes that underlie an organisms ability to detect sweet, salty, sour, umami (savory) and bitter compounds. Related projects are designed to identify genes involved in alcohol intake, calcium appetite, and obesity.

A long term interest of the Center involves developmental changes in human sensory responses. One program of research investigates the pre- and post-natal determinants of flavor sensitivity and preferences. Another series of projects is investigating how the chemical senses change as humans age.

Another long-standing interest at the Center has focused on how body odors serve communicatory functions in humans and other animals. Ongoing studies are investigating the genetics, biology and chemistry of individual “odorprints” in humans and mice. Other studies are pursuing the old idea that odors may be used for disease diagnosis in both human patients and animal models.

Clinical projects currently focus on the role of inflammatory processes in patients with taste or smell problems. One project is studying taste loss following radiation for head and neck cancers, with an ultimate goal of helping patients to meet the nutritional challenges of this devastating disease.

In another project, Monell and Jefferson scientists are investigating the underlying pathology of nasal sinus diseases, which can cause permanent major smell losses.

A third project focuses on the effects of environmental exposure to volatile (air-borne) chemicals and particles on chemosensory function. Populations being studied include fire fighters, medical students, and individuals exposed to the air during and after the 2001 World Trade Center destruction.

Fundamental studies being conducted by Monell biophysicists and neurophysiologists seek to determine how odorants are detected at the receptor level and how odor information is processed in the brain.

Although we think of the sense of taste as occurring in the oral cavity, the receptors are also located further down the digestive tract, for example in the stomach and intestine. Ongoing studies are probing the mechanisms and functions of these “taste” receptors.

Other projects include understanding the sensory pathways that provoke nausea, and learning more about the sensory qualities and receptors related to oleocanthal, an irritant compound found in extra virgin olive oil that has non-steroidal anti-inflammatory activity.

As can be seen from this partial list of ongoing projects, study of the chemical senses has many ramifications and crosses many traditional boundaries of research. It is for this reason that the Center maintains a multidisciplinary staff and fosters collaboration across disciplines.

For those who don’t follow the taste and smell business, what is the current “big controversy” in the field – the hot button issue if you will?

During the past decade or so, an incredible amount of progress has been made in understanding the early events in chemosensation.

Thus, the receptors for taste, smell and chemesthetic agents (eg, capsaicin or menthol) have been identified. But how these initial receptor events are translated into percepts – what we experience as, for example, the flavors of foods or the fragrances of flowers, is still a mystery.

Although most tastes, smells, and flavors are a complex mixture of compounds, they appear to a person as unitary percepts. How does this happen? Although this is not a controversy, it is certainly one of the central issues currently facing the field and the scientists at the Monell Center.

On the functional side, it seems obvious that flavors of foods are critical to food selection and thus play a central role in some of the most significant health problems currently facing modern society, including obesity, diabetes, hypertension and the metabolic syndrome.

But exactly what role these senses play and how they might be exploited in efforts to reduce intake of culprits such as sugar, salt and fat, remains to be understood and is one of the challenges that scientists at Monell and elsewhere are addressing.

Can you give us one little known “fun fact” about taste and/or smell?

Most people think that flavor is the same as taste, and often interchange the two words. In fact, that’s not correct. The distinctive flavor of most foods and drinks actually comes more from smell than it does from taste.

Sugar has a taste (sweet), but strawberry is a smell. An airway between the nose and mouth lets people combine aroma with the five basic tastes to enjoy thousands of flavors.

This easily can be demonstrated with the “jellybean test”: take 2 red jellybeans of differing flavors, eg cherry and strawberry (but not cinnamon – that’s an chemosensory irritant).

While holding your nose tightly closed, pop one of the jellybeans into your mouth and chew. Try to identify the flavor. You’ll know that it’s sweet, but won’t be able to determine whether it’s cherry or strawberry until you let go of your nose and let the olfactory information whoosh up into your nose.

This is a great “Aha!” moment. In addition to taste and smell, flavor also includes information from temperature, texture, chemesthesis, and other modalities.


Do you research only human taste and smell at Monell?

The answer to this question has two parts.

First, as described above, research at Monell explores not only taste and smell, but also what is sometimes called the common chemical sense (chemesthesis). This third chemical sense is actually part of the somatosensory system and detects sensations such as the burn of hot peppers (capsaicin), the cooling of menthol, and the throat sting of some extra virgin olive oils.

Second, the work of the Center focuses on human sensation, but there is also a very active program with non-human species.

This work is specifically designed to understand comparative aspects of chemosensation.

I’ll cite two examples. In one project the sense of taste of the obligate carnivore, the cat, is being studied. It turns out that cats cannot taste sweet; they have lost the function of their sweet receptor.

This evolutionary change presumably reflects an adaptation to the cat’s diet that contains no sweet carbohydrates and may help explain why cats can not tolerate large amounts of carbohydrate in their diet.

In another program, conducted in collaboration with scientists at the USDA National Wildlife Research Center in Colorado, investigators are studying the sensory biology of pest species such as deer, coyotes, and geese with the goal of developing attractive baits to deliver birth control agents or repellants to reduce damage to desirable crops and plants.

What animal species has the most highly developed sense of smell?

The most highly developed chemosensory system is found in certain species of moths that are able to detect and respond to one or a very few molecules of their species’ sex pheromone. This is a highly specific system, as these moths are not especially sensitive to other compounds.

For mammals, it is well known that dogs are very sensitive to odors and this is true across many odorous compounds.

Other species that depend on smell to regulate major life activities, such as rodents, are also extremely sensitive. Although humans are probably less sensitive than many species to some odors – humans have apparently lost functionality of about two thirds of the approximately 1000 odor receptors possessed by most mammals – they are still remarkably sensitive to some odors, particularly those that contain sulfur compounds.

Where did that cool nose statue come from that is in front of your building?

A University City landmark, the statue is entitled “Face Fragment,” and was created by Philadelphia artist Arlene Love. The generous gift of Mrs. Patricia Kind, it was commissioned to mark Monell´s entrance and was installed in 1975, a few years after the building was completed.

The opinions expressed in this interview are solely those of the person being interviewed and are not attributable to DailyInterview.com or the editors.

Copyright 2008 DailyInterview.com

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