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New $4.4 million research project targets obesity in Pennsylvania

Dec 08, 2015 08:03AM ● Published by Erica Shames

Marylyn D. Ritchie, Ph.D., director of biomedical and translational informatics at Geisinger.

A deeper understanding of the causes of obesity, and improved treatments for obesity and many of its related health problems, are among the goals of a new $4.4 million, four-year research grant awarded by the Pennsylvania Department of Health to a team of scientists from Geisinger Health System, Penn State University and the University of Pennsylvania. 

“Our overall goal is not only to predict the risk of obesity but also to improve diagnosis and therapies for coronary heart disease, endometrial cancer, type-2 diabetes, and other debilitating medical conditions associated with obesity,” said Marylyn D. Ritchie, Ph.D., director of biomedical and translational informatics at Geisinger. She also is the Paul Berg Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Penn State.  Ritchie is the principal investigator of the research team, which she leads along with Kateryna Makova, Ph.D., professor of biology at Penn State, and Jason H. Moore, Ph.D., professor of informatics and director of the Institute for Biomedical Informatics at the University of Pennsylvania.

The research project is part of the “Big Data in Health Research” effort established by the state’s Commonwealth Universal Research Enhancement Program (CURE) to develop new procedures, methods, and software for integrating and analyzing multiple types of biomedical information stored in large clinical, imaging, laboratory, genetic, and other databases.  The goal of the effort is to discover insights that can guide future research, education, and clinical care for the prevention or treatment of diseases that are important for the citizens of Pennsylvania. “We have assembled the field’s experts in Big Data analytics, genomics, and data mining to develop new approaches to analyze data from electronic health records along with genetic information,” Ritchie said.

Among the conditions associated with obesity that the research team will study are nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) - the leading cause of cirrhosis - and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) - which affects 30 percent of U.S. adults and also increases the risk of type-2 diabetes.  The researchers also expect to gain new insights into the mechanisms underlying the effects of obesity on the progression, recurrence, and overall survival rates of patients with endometrial cancer. “Obesity is the most significant risk factor for endometrial cancer,” Moore said. “Understanding these mechanisms in more detail, which is one of the goals of our research, can lead to new treatment options.”

Makova said, “Our work is based on the fact that genome science has advanced at a tremendous pace during recent years, with dramatic innovations in molecular data generation technology, data collection, and a paradigm shift from single-lab science to large, collaborative network/consortia science. This work will improve the health of Pennsylvanians by reducing the prevalence of obesity and related diseases, generating significant savings in terms of public health outlays as a result.”

Degenerative joint disease is another focus of this research team. “We plan to do integrated analyses of genomic, environmental, behavioral, and clinical data in order to reveal a better understanding of the relationship of obesity and weight loss to degenerative joint disease,” Ritchie said.

The collabortive project also includes internship training opportunities for undergraduate and graduate minority students in the use of bioinformatics and computer technology for the management of biological information. Another educational goal of the research project is the development of a two-year learning opportunity for post-baccalaureate minority students that includes both classwork and scientific research.  “The interdisciplinary nature of research in Big Data analysis for biomedical discovery has created enormous educational opportunities,” Ritchie said.  “The CURE grant will help to support our work with our collaborative research partners to foster an increase in training opportunities for minority students in this emerging field.”

The innovative methods, systems, and software that will be developed by this project also will be available for use by other researchers studying other diseases and conditions. In this way, the research effort may help to improve the understanding and treatment of other diseases and conditions, as well. 

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