• Edward Merritt
    Edward Merritt

When most people think of kinesiology they think of exercise studies or improving athletic performance. Which makes sense, because both are a major part of the field. But as with most academic disciplines, there are often lesser-known areas that can lead to interesting and rewarding career paths as well. Dr Edward Merritt, Assistant Professor of Kinesiology, brings a different spin on kinesiology to Southwestern.

Professor Merritt joined the SU Kinesiology department this fall from Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. His area of interest is less about helping athletes reach optimal performance, and more about helping trauma victims function at all.

When things go wrong, or when there is trauma to the body, “how can we help the muscles to become functional again?” Dr Merritt explains that “Kinesiology is more than turning good athletes into great athletes. Sometimes, helping someone to walk again after a traumatic injury is a major win.”

Dr. Merritt graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in Human Nutrition, Foods and Exercise. He earned both his Masters in Kinesiology and PhD in Exercise Physiology from the University of Texas, and did his postdoctoral fellowship at in the Department of Cellular, Molecular, and Developmental Biology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

While at UT, Dr. Merritt’s dissertation focused on volumetric muscle loss, with a research partnership through the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. He assessed muscle loss using tissue engineering approaches with decellularized tissue and adult stem cell treatments to restore volume and function.

He explains, “In the event of trauma such as an explosion, where there is bone structure but no muscle left, the muscles are not going to regrow the same.” His research focuses on changing that. Dr. Merritt believes it’s possible to not only make the injured area look better, but to truly make the muscles function better.

During his postdoctorate fellowship, Dr. Merritt worked with the burn center at the University of Alabama Birmingham. Burns are a different type of traumatic injury, and a lot of it is unchartered territory. “Fifty years ago, victims of severe burns typically wouldn’t survive. With medical advances we can now keep them alive, but the trauma causes all kinds of problems throughout the entire body.” After weeks of lying in a hospital bed recovering, the muscles atrophy and sink away. The burn victims lose muscle mass.

Dr. Merritt says, “The worst injury you can survive is a burn. It affects the entire body, even the areas that were not burned.”

In fact, burn victims lose muscle at a faster rate than others trauma victims and are slower to recover. “Even a year or more later, they don’t bounce back as quickly as those with other types of injuries. Despite dedicated physical therapy and working in the weight room, they simply don’t get the muscles back.” But why?

Dr. Merritt and his colleagues analyzed research done on protein nutrition in burn victims to figure out what was happening within the cells of non-burned muscles from burn victims. They found that in the muscle cells, protein synthesis was relatively normal, but for some reason, protein breakdown was much higher. Dr. Merritt explains, “the body kind of works like a see-saw, and tries to keep itself in balance. If your muscles are staying about the same size over several months, it means that everything was balanced. Muscle proteins were being made at the same rate that they were being degraded. But with burns, something knocks it out of balance, and even though your body is adding proteins to the muscle at the same rate, it’s taking them away much faster.” He provided an analogy of someone trying to build an addition on a house with bricks: “for every 10 he puts on, someone comes along behind him and takes off 12.”

As any scientist knows, there are always challenges and setbacks in research. Sometimes studies don’t produce the results you expected. “That’s the nature of science” he explains. The important thing is to take what you’ve learned and apply it to the next project. Which is exactly what Dr. Merritt is doing.

He’s determined to find out if there is something in the blood stream of burn victims that contributes to the loss and inability to recover muscle volume, which is the focus of his current research.

In this study, he’ll isolate muscle cells into separate petri dishes, then add serum from the cells of a healthy (or “non-burned”) person to one, and serum from the cells of a burn victim of the other. The hope is that the by comparing the two, the findings will provide insight into why this happens and enable scientists to help burn victims in their recovery.

Dr. Merritt is fascinated with this research, which is why he chose to stay in the molecular field. There are many kinesiologists that study exercise performance, but very few that do research on human trauma. He hopes his research will inspire students interested in the field to explore different areas and opportunities.

Dr. Merritt teaches anatomy and physiology and a class on comparative exercise physiology. He loves working with the SU students, and is looking forward to continuing with the next phase of research with them here at Southwestern.

The abstracts from Dr. Merritt’s research are available on the National Library of Medicine website. The links are included below:

For more information on the research or muscle physiology studies contact Professor Merritt at merritte@southwestern.edu or visit the Kinesiology Dept page.