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American Heart Association Funds Trials to Study, Treat Childhood Obesity

Projects will study efficacy of weight loss programs, biomarkers of obesity and more

Published June 13, 2017 | Updated June 13, 2017

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DURHAM, N.C. – Duke Health researchers will launch four projects this summer to better understand and treat the health impacts of childhood obesity.

The projects include clinical and population health research on the most effective treatments for childhood obesity and basic science research on differences in gut bacteria among children who are overweight compared to those in a healthy weight range, and how those differences might influence their risk of obesity and response to treatment.

Duke will conduct the studies as part of the American Heart Association’s Strategically Focused Research Network (SFRN) for children, which will provide $3.7 million over the next four years for the research. Jennifer Li, M.D., chief of the Division of Pediatric Cardiology at Duke University School of Medicine, will lead the work.

“Unfortunately, up to a third of children are obese or overweight,” said Li, who is also a professor of medicine and of pediatrics, and the Duke Clinical Research Institute (DCRI). “This is a generation of kids who might not do as well as their parents because they face a future risk of heart attacks, diabetes and stroke. This grant can help us figure out the best interventions, including those that might work on a larger scale in communities across the country.”

The clinical research portion will focus on the effectiveness of two existing Duke programs called Bull City Fit and Healthy Lifestyles, which the health system has offered since 2012. These programs combine regular exercise, nutrition classes, family involvement and monthly medical evaluations.

The AHA-funded clinical trial will enroll 350 youngsters and will be the most comprehensive study to date on the program’s impact on weight, physical fitness, quality of life, family engagement and more, said principal investigator Sarah C. Armstrong, M.D., a pediatrician and associate professor of pediatrics.

“The proposed work aligns in mission with the American Heart Association’s goals of improving child health and well-being,” Armstrong said. “It’s exciting to get to work with an organization that so clearly supports children and their future health.

Cardiologist Svati Shah, M.D., an associate professor of medicine and member of the Duke Molecular Physiology Institute and DCRI, will lead the basic science research defining how molecular pathways associated with children’s gut bacteria could influence their obesity risks and other outcomes. Shah is also leading a project for a different AHA SFRN launched in 2016 to study heart failure in adults.

Asheley Skinner, Ph.D., associate professor of medicine, will lead the population-health project examining obesity treatment programs across the country to evaluate different models and their effectiveness.

For the fourth project, Skinner, also a member of DCRI, will lead training for scientific, clinical and population health professionals on issues related to childhood obesity, cardiovascular disease and their prevention and treatment.

In addition to Duke, the AHA will fund projects at three other institutions to study pediatric heart health and diseases: Children’s National Health System in Washington, D.C., the University of Utah and Northwestern University.

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