Metro-East News

July 20, 2014

'No pain, no gain': Man with Belleville ties publishes research on exercise

A man with ties to Belleville is making his mark on the scientific community with studies on exercise.

There's something to the idea "No pain, no gain," in that intense exercise has an extreme effect on the body, making changes on the molecular level in skeletal muscle.

That's the idea behind research led by Michael Conkright, an assistant professor at Scripps Research Institute in Florida and the son of John Conkright, who owns Ben's Crafts Framing Gifts Toys in downtown Belleville.

"Trainers already know this," Michael Conkright said. "We're trying to understand on a molecular level."

Conkright, along with his colleague Nelson Bruno and other collaborators, had their new research published in The EMBO Journal.

Conkright, 46, of Jupiter, Fla., did not grow up in the metro-east, but he spent summer breaks working at his dad's store. He lived in Missouri with his mother, but he has fond memories of Belleville.

"Even though I didn't go to school here, it's home," he said.

Conkright is a single father of 7-year-old twins and an 11-year-old daughter. He said he visits Belleville about twice per year.

"Not often enough," said his father, John Conkright, during a recent visit to see the latest expansion at Ben's.

He earned his bachelor's in microbiology and master's degree in physiology and pharmacology from Purdue University. He studied molecular genetics while earning his doctorate from the University of Cincinnati. He did his post-doctoral studies in signal transduction at the Saulk Institute in San Diego.

All his areas of study are related and help shape his work now, he said.

John Conkright said he didn't help fund his son's education, but he told him: "You have a job whenever you want it."

When working at Ben's, Michael Conkright said he worked six days per week, performing every duty imaginable. "Labor laws don't apply to family," he said, with a laugh.

He recalled dressing as a Lottery ball, sweeping pigeon poop off the roof, delivering bank deposits and directing delivery trucks, in addition to working cash registers, stocking shelves and performing other store tasks.

"The work ethic I got working in the store definitely prepared me for career in science," he said.

Conkright's recent study used mice genetically-modified to conditionally express a specific protein, known as CRTC2 -- which humans also have. Through the six-year study, scientists in Conkright's lab showed that molecular changes occurred that mock exercised muscles in the absence of exercise.

"There will never be an exercise pill," Conkright said.

"While there will never be a replacement for exercise, the study uncovered a potential therapeutic avenue that may someday be used in combination with exercise to help individuals overcome adversity and begin exercising," he explained.

When exercise reaches a level that is uncomfortable and creates a level of stress on the body, activation of the CRTC2 protein drives physical improvements in skeletal muscle, said Conkright, who noted Scripps is getting his research patented, and a follow-up study is in the works.

The findings have affected Conkright's workout routine: "I feel that intense exercise changes the body and muscles at a molecular level in ways that milder physical activity does not match," he said. "However, I find it difficult to perform only high-intensity exercise, so I have adapted my normal exercise routine to finish with a few bouts of high-intensity intervals.

"There's really nothing better than exercise," he said.

Contact reporter Maria Hasenstab at or 618-239-2460.

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