Gillings School team receives $6.2 million to study metabolic underpinnings of obesity-associated cardiovascular disease

May 15, 2019

Penny Gordon-Larsen, PhD — a professor in the Department of Nutrition and associate dean for research at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health — and a multidisciplinary team of researchers have been awarded a $6.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health’s National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute to study how the body’s metabolic processes influence obesity-related cardiovascular disease (CVD).

The team also is led by Christy Avery, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology, Kari North, PhD, professor in the Department of Epidemiology, and Susan Sumner, PhD, professor in the Department of Nutrition, who will work with Gordon-Larsen on the study “Leveraging multi-omics approaches to examine metabolic challenges of obesity in relation to CVD” to better understand the biologic mechanisms behind obesity’s impact on metabolic pathways and how they relate to CVD.

Dr. Christy Avery

Dr. Christy Avery

Dr. Kari North

Dr. Kari North

Dr. Susan Sumner

Dr. Susan Sumner

Cardiovascular diseases are leading causes of morbidity, mortality and early disability and can be exacerbated by obesity, a disease that is rapidly becoming more prevalent in the United States. As not all obese individuals are at risk for CVD, and not all individuals with CVDs are obese, previous research suggests a genetic component of CVD risk lies in specific metabolic pathways that influence obesity.

Metabolites are small molecules that circulate in the blood, and they can be important disease biomarkers and potential targets for medicines and therapies.

“With newly emerging technologies and methodological advancements, we can look at molecular and genetic signals in blood to understand the complex relationship between obesity and cardiovascular diseases,” said Gordon-Larsen. “When we examine metabolites in relation to genetics, we can gain insight into which individuals are most susceptible to cardiovascular disease and how obesity plays a role in exacerbating their risk.”

The team will develop and employ cutting-edge metabolomics and statistical methods to characterize known and unknown metabolite signals and assess metabolic disruptions that influence CVD and CVD risk factors that influence metabolic response. The team hopes to identify metabolites and major metabolic pathways that influence metabolic CVD risk factors such as cholesterol, blood pressure and glycemic phenotypes.

Data for this study comes from the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) study, which is following 18-to-30-year-olds over a 35-year period that began in 1985. The study includes African-American and Caucasian adults from both high and low socioeconomic statuses, providing an opportunity to address the disproportionately large rates of CVD among African-Americans and among individuals of low socioeconomic status.

“By examining these relationships in the early adult years when cardiovascular diseases develop, we can gain insight into the early indicators of risk, which can lead to more targeted interventions to prevent cardiovascular diseases,” said Avery.

As the study has strong potential for identifying biomarkers of CVD risk, the findings could help identify novel therapeutic and nutritional targets to reduce the global burden of CVD.

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