Detroit — On a sunny Wednesday in late April, Zach Zenner guessed what his teammates were doing.
Golfing, likely because of the weather. Playing video games. Sleeping. Hanging out with family. Maybe a few were doing philanthropic work.
Zenner, though was on the seventh floor of Henry Ford Hospital on Detroit’s west side providing a simulation of the laboratory testing he’s been doing since March 21 — two weeks after his wedding.
A running back from South Dakota State, he doesn’t know how long his NFL career will last, so when he’s done practicing or working out, he drives to the hospital to continue testing how fructose — a sugar substitute — impacts hypertension levels in rats, a study that should boost his resume when he goes to medical school.
Zenner is one of three Lions — guard Laken Tomlinson and rookie quarterback Jake Rudock — who hope to go to medical school after their playing career. After graduating with a biology degree, Zenner was accepted to the Sanford School of Medicine at South Dakota, but had to defer his admission.
But he doesn’t know how long he’ll be able to defer his place, and after scoring a 30 on the MCAT, which placed him in the 79th percentile, he doesn’t want to retake the exam.
Dr. William Beierwaltes, who runs the lab where Zenner is working, has no doubt.
“A lot of physicians trained in medical school don’t have the type of lab experience Zach has,” Beierwaltes said. “He’s already thinking about ideas to improve the methodology which is wonderful. That means you’re engaged.”
In many ways, Zenner’s injury last season — four cracked ribs and a collapsed lung — helped him set up this offseason project, which ends in June.
“I’m surrounded by all these MDs, and I had the idea before I got injured,” he said. “And then when I was injured, all of a sudden I was forced into contact with all these different doctors.
“So if one stuck around and I had met them more than once, I would bring up that I was interested.”
Zenner said Dr. Michael Workings, one of the Tigers physicians, was happy to help. Workings’ assistant texted Zenner, asking if he wanted to meet with Dr. Margot LaPointe, vice president for research at the hospital.
“I said, ‘Absolutely,’
” Zenner said. “It was my top priority at that time without football.”
So in late December, while he was on injured reserve, Zenner met with LaPointe and toured the hospital before being placed in Beierwaltes’ lab in the hypertension and vascular research division. And Beierwaltes found a project Zenner could complete during his time frame.
“He was able to put a project together that I’ll be able to accomplish, and it’ll be meaningful, achievable and done by June,” Zenner said.
Zenner’s project is part of a bigger venture to see how rats react to increased fructose and salt in their bodies with the hopes of applying the results to humans. The results could provide more information about diabetes, obesity, metabolism, hypertension and cardiovascular disease.
“This project specifically sparked my interest because you’re dealing with diet and the effects that diet is having on the body,” Zenner said. “As an athlete, that’s huge. What I intake is going to help what I put out on the field or in the weight room and so on.”
For the study, Zenner fills feeding tubes with four solutions. One is water with fructose, one is water with the drug Tempol, one is water with fructose and Tempol, and one is just water.
After feeding the rats with the various solutions, Zenner tests their blood pressure with tools similar to those used for humans — except the gauge attaches to the tail instead of an arm.
And the translational aspect to people made it especially appealing.
“When you think about 20 percent fructose and a high salt diet, it’s similar — according to what I’ve found, at least — I would estimate that to be around a little bit more than 1 liter of Coke and five bags of potato chips a day,” Zenner said. “And if you think about the American diet, that’s not too far off what some people are eating.”
And the application, depending on the results, could be useful in Detroit. Early in the study, Zenner said the results showed blood pressure increased a week after fructose levels grew. With a lack of grocery stores in the city, many children’s diets consist of items from fast-food restaurants and convenient stores, which of course provide lots of sugary and salty treats.
Zenner participated in some studies in college. He was even a subject in one that compared bone density between athletes and non-athletes.
He also worked in a lab with his college’s pharmacy department that looked at how a chemical compound, curcumin, impacted colon cancer.
“He knows his way around,” Beierwaltes said.
Zenner hadn’t worked with rats before, but did work with mice in college.
“There’s nothing really specific about this (rat study) that you could point to and say this is going to help me in the future, but it’s the general idea of research that’ll help me in research and medical school,” Zenner said. “Hypothesis, experiment, results and analysis, that whole mindset will help me going forward.”
Eventually, Zenner wants to be a surgeon, but said his focus could depend on how long he plays in the NFL.
“Maybe I don’t want to train for 10 years for another job,” he said.
Regardless, the current study will “keep those neurons firing,” Beierwaltes said.
The goal is to publish a report with the findings, but opportunities depend on the results. Beierwaltes said the Zenner’s study could end up in a variety of journals related to kidneys, diabetes or other topics.
Either way, Zenner believes this has been a worthwhile endeavor.
“If you’re thinking about going to medical school someday, you can see how this is helpful, just sitting here talking,” Zenner said.