AHA awards UAB a $3.7 million grant to further generational obesity research

A multidisciplinary research team at UAB looks to address obesity as it is genetically passed from mother to child.

david allison group 2017Top, from left: The UAB Strategically Focused Research Center team includes: Kirk Habegger, Ph.D.; Nefertiti Durant, M.D.; Tim Garvey, M.D.; David Allison, Ph.D.; Stella Aslibekyan, Ph.D.; Nengjun Yi, Ph.D.; Cora Elizabeth Lewis, M.D.; Paula Chandler-Laney, Ph.D.; Bertha Hidalgo, Ph.D.; Lorie Harper, M.D.The University of Alabama at Birmingham will launch the UAB Strategically Focused Obesity Research Center with a grant from the American Heart Association for $3.7 million over the next four years. The UAB SFOC is one of four sites in the AHA’s Strategically Focused Obesity Research Network that will work together to advance the field of obesity research.

The UAB SFOC will address two major categories of questions: What metabolic abnormalities imprinted in the womb contribute to excess weight gain in offspring that continue into adulthood, and what are the underlying molecular and genetic causes?

“Obesity perpetuates itself from one generation to the next,” said Timothy Garvey, M.D., principal investigator of the SFOC, director of the UAB Diabetes Research Center and chair of the UAB Department of Nutrition Sciences. “Mothers with obesity tend to give birth to children with obesity, which continues into adulthood, ready to begin the next generational cycle. While the causes of obesity are complex, events that occur in the womb are particularly powerful and program long-term regulation of body weight, as well as greater risk for diabetes and heart disease.” 

Obesity both is a disease in its own right and predisposes to weight-related complications, including diabetes, heart disease and stroke. Prevalence rates for obesity have been increasing in the United States and worldwide, producing a heavy burden of patient suffering and social costs.

For the first time, investigators will initiate a collaborative multidisciplinary approach to identify the mechanisms by which the in-utero environment of mothers with obesity, metabolic syndrome and gestational diabetes impact body weight and metabolism long after birth and promote the spreading of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease risks over several generations.

“We will not be able to combat the disease until we can break the cycle of transmitting obesity from one generation to the next,” said Garvey, C.E. Butterworth Jr., M.D., endowed professor in the UAB School of Health Professions.  

“We will not be able to combat the disease until we can break the cycle of transmitting obesity from one generation to the next.”

The study will look at how the womb environment in lean mothers versus overweight mothers programs the ability of hormones to regulate appetite by acting on the centers in the brain that recognize satisfaction, the amount of energy expended by the body at rest, how well the body uses fat for fuel and insulin’s ability to control glucose. Second, investigators will look at modifications in DNA, called epigenetics, produced by the womb environment that can continue after birth and alter expression of genes.

“By identifying the very genes, biochemical pathways and metabolic functions altered in the womb to promote weight gain, we hope to identify novel targets for intervention and risk identification to break the cycle of intergenerational obesity,” said David Allison, Ph.D., training director for the new program and director of the UAB Nutrition Obesity Research Center.

The UAB SFOC is designed to address obesity as never before by combining expertise in human physiology, maternal-fetal health, epidemiology, molecular biology and epigenetics. The program will consist of three cohesive multidisciplinary research projects, including basic, clinical and population-based projects.

Additional investigators working on the studies coming out of the UAB SFOC include Lorie Harper, M.D., associate professor in the UAB School of Medicine Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology; Paula Chandler-Laney, Ph.D., assistant professor in the UAB Department of Nutrition Sciences; Cora Elizabeth Lewis, M.D., professor in the UAB Division of Preventive Medicine; Kirk Habegger, Ph.D., assistant professor in the UAB Division of Endocrinology Diabetes and Metabolism; Stella Aslibekyan, Ph.D., assistant professor in the UAB School of Public Health; Nengjun Yi, Ph.D., professor in the UAB SOPH; Bertha Hidalgo, Ph.D., assistant professor in the UAB SOPH; and Nefertiti Durant, M.D., associate professor in the UAB Department of Pediatrics.

UAB is one of four institutions in the AHA SFORN, along with John Hopkins University, New York University and Vanderbilt University.