June 1, 2021

Research into obesity has helped health care professionals learn that the condition is a complex one, requiring multi-faceted treatment strategies instead of a “one-size-fits-all” approach. To understand and improve the science used to develop these strategies, experts at UNC convened the first annual Interdisciplinary Nutrition Sciences Symposium in 2019.

At this symposium, participating researchers sought to bridge the gap between human and mouse studies that are commonly used to model the diversity of factors that can lead to the development of obesity. Their findings are now available in an article in Advances in Nutrition, published by a group that includes faculty from the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health.

Dr. Penny Gordon-Larsen

Dr. Penny Gordon-Larsen

Dr. S. Raza Shaikh

Dr. S. Raza Shaikh

The lead authors from the Gillings School are Penny Gordon-Larsen, PhD, associate dean for research and Carla Smith Chamblee Distinguished Professor, and Associate Professor S. Raza Shaikh, PhD; along with Professor John French, PhD; Associate Professor Saroja Voruganti, PhD; Elizabeth Mayer-Davis, PhD, nutrition department chair and Cary C. Boshamer Distinguished Professor; Assistant Professor Delisha Stewart, PhD; and John Easterbrook, PhD, managing director of the Nutrition Obesity Research Center. They were joined by co-authors from the UNC Renaissance Computing Institute, Texas Tech University and the University of Florida.

“Sometimes we see two people who may eat the exact same diet, and one will gain weight while the other will not,” said Gordon-Larsen. “We think that’s due to the complexity of obesity and the different metabolic, hormonal, genetic and molecular factors that increase or decrease susceptibility to weight gain. In this paper, we discuss the strengths of the diet-induced obesity experiments in diversity outbred and collaborative cross mouse models for addressing this complexity.”

Mice are commonly used to model pathways for developing obesity, particularly in experimental overfeeding and energy-restricted diets, since this kind of research cannot be performed in humans. However, not every type of mouse can effectively replicate the genetic diversity that humans have. According to Shaikh, researchers at UNC have access to specific types of mice bred to be more genetically diverse and appropriate for the level of precision required in contemporary obesity studies.

The conference focused on strategies that can translate research from these mouse models into findings that can be applied to humans. The supplemental paper offers suggestions for best practices that will help nutrition experts gain the most accurate understanding of the underlying causes of obesity.

This knowledge can help health care providers develop treatments that best fit individual patients. This strategy is part of broader efforts for precision obesity treatments, which use targeted approaches specific to a person’s genetic or physiological susceptibility and in the context of their own lifestyle and environment. The effort is closely tied to the UNC Obesity Creativity Hub and a precision obesity trial led by Deb Tate, who is studying the effects of different diets, meal frequency recommendations and exercise approaches for individual patients and is working to identify genetic, microbial and behavioral factors that predict which diet works best for which person.

The second annual Interdisciplinary Nutrition Sciences Symposium is just around the corner, on June 21-22, and will be held virtually. The conference again focuses on translational obesity science with the theme of cancer and related obesity-associated outcomes. Keynote speakers will include Yaron Rotman, MD, MsC, from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; Connie J. Rogers, PhD, associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania; Jennifer Ligibel, MD, associate professor at Harvard Medical School; and Hans-Rudolf Berthoud, PhD, George H. Bray Professor at Louisiana State University. Registration is open to the public.

Contact the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health communications team at sphcomm@unc.edu.

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