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American Heart Association’s Network-Funded Report Reveals Obesity Findings

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The Strategically Focused Research Network (SFRN) on Obesity, funded by the American Heart Association (AHA) to study obesity and train future obesity-focused investigators, has published its findings in a Journal of the American Heart Association special report, which hails the group’s work as “the beginning of innovative science, and, importantly, the birth of new collaborations and research partnerships to propel the field forward.”

Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) and Vanderbilt University (VU) collaborated with Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, New York University Grossman School of Medicine and the University of Alabama at Birmingham on a four-year, $15 million award from the AHA, funded in 2017 to study aspects of obesity that contribute to disorders such as Type 2 diabetes and heart disease that reduce the quality of life and life span,

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports the prevalence of obesity in the US was 42.4% in 2018, with current estimates indicating the global prevalence of overweight and obesity may exceed 57% by 2030.

“The importance of sharply focused scientific collaborations such as the SFRN on Obesity cannot be overstated, particularly as the prevalence of overweight and obesity continues to escalate throughout the world,” said Kevin Niswender, MD, PhD, associate professor of Medicine at VUMC and director of the Vanderbilt centre.

“As a result of this AHA-supported network, we have collectively taken several significant steps forward as we seek to more fully understand the causes of obesity, discover new therapeutic interventions and identify biomarkers to more precisely track both obesity and the success of weight loss,” he said.

A goal of the VUMC centre research was to further advance precision medicine approaches to treating obesity while reducing cardiovascular disease risk.

The investigators focused on a particular drug target for diabetes and obesity, the glucagon-like peptide-1 receptor (GLP-1R), which has been shown to protect the heart and its arteries rather than increase the risk for cardiovascular disease.

The VUMC team conducted research that resulted in several important findings. First, they found that alterations in the communication between cells and the GLP-1R – whether due to genetic variation or drug-like molecules – can lead to an improved cellular response to metabolic stress. Second, they determined that activation of the GLP-1R does not have a direct effect on the function of blood vessels, but can improve other indicators of cardiovascular disease risk.

Finally, the team discovered that utilizing electronic health record data, which has been curated for cardiometabolic outcomes, in combination with linked genotyping, can provide innovative methods for understanding obesity and cardiometabolic risk heterogeneity. These findings are significant in furthering our understanding of cellular communication and improving our ability to prevent and treat cardiometabolic diseases.

The SFRN was also tasked with developing a training program for investigators to pursue obesity-related investigations. AHA fellows were recruited at every centre and presented their research at national and international conferences.

“This centre accomplished many of the important goals of both VUMC and the AHA,” said Joshua Beckman, MD, professor of Medicine, who served as a training co-director for the centre.

“New knowledge was created that will advance our understanding of the interface between obesity and cardiovascular disease. New teams of investigators were brought together to attack these issues from basic, translational and clinical perspectives. New investigators were provided training in multiple disciplines to position them well to advance their careers and the science they will discover. All in all, it was a very VUMC-like effort – coming together to do big things,” he said,

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