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Childhood Obesity Researchers Announce Inaugural Group Of Projects

Hear the report from KUAR's Daniel Breen.

Six researchers are laying out details of how they plan to study the causes of childhood obesity. The Center for Childhood Obesity Prevention at the Arkansas Children’s Research Institute announced its first round of projects Wednesday.

Created last year through a $9.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, the Center for Childhood Obesity Prevention seeks to address all levels of the issues surrounding overweight kids.

Dr. Judith Weber studied human nutrition and physiology, and has spent her academic career researching childhood obesity. Now the center’s director, she said her hope is to apply their findings to a real-world problem.

“The center is fully translational, and what that means is, regardless of what type of project it is, whether it’s lab-based or whether it’s field research, that at some point the results will matriculate out either into patient care or into public, population health,” Weber said.

The center was made possible thanks to a program called the Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE), which is available to states that receive the least funding from the National Institutes of Health. Currently, the center is in the second year of its first five-year phase, with two more phases to follow.

Weber said this inaugural group of research projects is setting the stage for more to come.

“Over the course of five years, we would expect to fund several dozen investigators and then help those people try to move forward to get federal external funding,” Weber said.

One project, headed by Dr. Eugénia Carvalho, is looking for new ways to identify underlying risk factors for childhood obesity. Though she teaches geriatrics at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, her background as a diabetes researcher led to her interest in obese children.

“I thought, you know, if I could go a little bit more back in time and try to look at children that are much younger than these individuals,” Carvalho said, “would I be able to find similar markers or similar physiology?”

Carvalho’s study focuses on insulin resistance, which plays a role in both obesity and type 2 diabetes. She hopes her project can use mitochondrial function as an early detection system before patients notice any symptoms or changes in blood sugar.

“In certain metabolic diseases, mitochondria function may be dysregulated in adults, but none of it is known in children,” Carvalho said. “We want to know whether this could be a good way to find out whether, at this very early age, we could already find if there are any disturbances.”

To that end, Carvalho also hopes to work with kids with diabetic relatives to further distinguish environmental and genetic causes.

“That would be very important to find out if what we have is directing toward our environment or some of it could be predisposed due to the genetics we have behind,” Carvalho said.

Dr. Carvalho says insulin resistance does not always equal diabetes, since most cases are diagnosed by measuring blood glucose or lipids, instead of the actual insulin itself. In some insulin resistant patients, the pancreas may secrete more insulin to make up for the body’s resistance to it, further skewing test results.

Carvalho hopes getting to the root cause of the disease can help treat childhood obesity before it even happens.

“Before you have abnormalities in your glycemia, or insulin levels, we would like to know if there’s something else that we could detect before that,” Carvalho said.

Though she hopes her center’s researchers can translate their findings into treatments and guidelines, Dr. Weber said the center’s work is invaluable for future discoveries.

“Each study in and of itself may not get to that point, but they’ll build on each other such that ultimately, you know, what’s the point of discovery unless it ultimately rolls out into the population?” Weber said. “And over 15 years, you kind of have time to do that.”

Weber said the center will work with institutions across Arkansas, and hopes to be self-sustaining by the third phase of their 15-year, NIH funded program.

Copyright 2017 KUAR

Daniel Breen is a third-year undergraduate journalism student at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.