When oilman C.B. "Doc" Pennington donated $125 million dollars to LSU to establish the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in 1980, his instructions to then Medical School Chancellor Dr. Alan Copping were simple: "That this should be the biggest and best nutrition research center in the country."
"The Pennington Center is the result of two really superb men of vision: Doc Pennington and Dr. Copping," said the Center's first executive director Dr. George Bray.
Three years later the Center broke ground. By the end of the decade, construction was complete and Dr. George Bray was recruited as the Center's first executive director.
However, before research could begin, Bray faced a slight challenge. "It was sitting here on a 250 acre piece of land and nobody in the parking lot," said Bray with a smile. "The initial challenges were being able to identify and recruit people who wanted to come to essentially an empty building and have faith that we were going to make progress."
Fortunately Bray was able to make the first recruits quickly, followed by the Center's first research grants from the U.S. Army and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Over the next two decades, Pennington would blossom to a staff of over 500 and an operating budget of nearly 60 million dollars. Many of those first research projects focusing on diabetes, obesity and nutrition continue today. But, it was a research diet in the 1990s that would first put Pennington in the national spotlight.
"We developed the DASH diet, Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension. It was an NIH funded trial and when we were selected from a group of 80 along with Harvard, Hopkins and Duke we knew that we had reached the big time," said Bray.
The results of that diet project would be the first time Pennington Research would be published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine; however, it would not be the last time.
Of course, Pennington has had its challenges as well. When the economy tanked in 2008, the center faced cutbacks of federal and state funding.
"The model of relying more on state funding and even federal funding, that's not going to work. So we're in the transformation process," said Pennington Biomedical Research Foundation Chairman Jerry Jolly.
The Foundation was born out of the community support surrounding the early days of Pennington. In its beginning, much of the early funding money came from local donors. The Foundation is a non-profit that handles that money and continues to raise funds for the Center.
Now, Pennington officials say the Center is working towards more independent economic development, building more partnerships and working to commercialize some of its research.
Pennington continues to expand its scope of research, guided by the role that nutrition plays in overall health.
"Through the years, research has shown, when you talk about nutrition and obesity, there are complications. Obvious complications are Type 2 Diabetes and heart disease," said current Executive Director Dr. William Cefalu. "Now we're understanding that there are many other complications, factors affecting dementia, cognitive decline."
Most recently, Pennington opened a pediatric clinic focused on childhood obesity. It is also participating in one of the biggest Type 2 Diabetes studies ever done, looking at the effectiveness of diabetes medication. At any one time, there may be 40 clinical studies going on inside Pennington.
As for the next 25 years, the goal is for Pennington's research to have a more direct impact on the community. "This is making sure that what we've learned in the walls of Pennington can help the individual in the clinic, help the primary care physician," said Cefalu.
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