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NIH grant helps KU provide obesity and metabolism research training for pre-doctoral graduate students

Obesity is a complex national epidemic. The grant is intended to produce trainees who can think broadly about the condition from the laboratory to the clinic.

Two researchers wearing white coats face a microscope. One drips a sample into a dish on a microscope while the other views the sample.
The NIH T32 grant will be used to train students to integrate both basic laboratory science and clinical studies into their research on obesity and obesity-related conditions.

The University of Kansas Medical Center has been awarded a prestigious grant by the National Institutes of Health to provide training focused on obesity and metabolism for pre-doctoral graduate students. Known as a T32 training grant, the five-year, $1.3 million award is another facet of KU Medical Center’s growing research efforts to combat obesity and obesity-related diseases and conditions.

More than 40% of American adults and 20% of children and adolescents have obesity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those statistics are on the rise nationally and in Kansas. In 2019, Kansas became one of the 19 states with an obesity rate of at least 35% for adults.

Obesity dramatically increases a person’s risk of developing cardiovascular conditions, Type 2 diabetes, kidney disease, fatty liver, orthopedic problems and a variety of cancers. It also can cause debilitating pain and contributes to mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Over the past three years, obesity has proved to be a significant factor in COVID-19 patients’ chances of dying.

Bridging the divides in research

The problem and the statistics are clear, but the condition is complex. Genetics, biology, behavior, environmental factors and social determinants all play a role in what causes someone to be obese. Nonetheless, people studying obesity and obesity-related diseases tend to conduct their research in silos. This T32 grant will be used to train scientists who bridge the divide between research on obesity and diseases caused by obesity, and between basic laboratory science (e.g., genetics and biology) and more clinical research (e.g., psychology and dietetics).

“There are people who solely focus on obesity and people who focus on the pathologies associated with obesity. And those two camps don't usually work together,” said John Thyfault, Ph.D., co-principal investigator on the grant and professor of cell biology and physiology at KU Medical Center. “A big component of our grant [application] was the idea that to effectively treat obesity-induced pathologies, you need to have some knowledge of how obesity develops and how it's connected to that disease.”

Thyfault also pointed to another problem: “Basic scientists working with cell cultures and animal models don't commonly talk to the people doing the clinical research, and vice versa. So, another goal is to educate the trainees about these different realms of research and how to integrate them.”

The grant is supporting three students this first year. Two come from a basic-science background while the third is a clinical researcher. The basic-science students are given clinical mentors, while the clinical researcher has been provided an additional basic-science mentor. In addition, the students have an advisory committee with basic, clinical and translational science expertise. All trainees will participate in seminars and take classes on obesity and biostatistics.

“We anticipate that students entering the program in future years will continue to come from both basic and clinical departments,” noted Doug Wright, Ph.D., co-principal investigator on the grant and professor of anesthesiology at KU Medical Center. “For those students who are seeing patients in the clinic, understanding how to research the molecular biology [behind the disease] will help them improve their approaches to patient care.”

Invaluable for patients

Sarah Thomas is an M.D./Ph.D. student supported by the new grant who is currently focused on the Ph.D. part of her degree and training in a lab. She just finished taking “Intervention for the Prevention and Management of Obesity,” a clinical course offered through the Department of Dietetics and Nutrition at KU School of Health Professions.

“I hadn’t received much nutrition education before, and they don't spend a lot of time on it in medical school,” she said. “We learned more practical information, such as the importance of eating breakfast and tips such as trying to eat soup or salad before eating a meal and not eating a few hours before bedtime. These are lifestyle changes. And I feel like that's like invaluable for most patients.”

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