Gordon-Larsen awarded $2.5M grant to study whether microbiome links Western diet, cardiometabolic risk

November 11, 2015

Penny Gordon-Larsen, PhD, professor of nutrition at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, has been awarded a $2.5M grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for the project, “Transition to a Western diet and cardiometabolic risk: Biomarkers derived from the microbiome.”

Dr. Penny Gordon-Larsen

Dr. Penny Gordon-Larsen

While recent work through the NIH Human Microbiome Project has characterized the normal bacterial makeup of the body, researchers still know little about how the microbiome changes during the process of urbanization in reaction to shifts in diet, obesity and cardiometabolic risk.

Humans are host to an enormous range of bacteria living on almost every part of the body, which – in total – weigh roughly as much as the human brain. These bacteria can have both beneficial and harmful effects on health, such as bacteria in the gut that influence host metabolism by modulating signaling pathways.

Previous research suggests that a Western diet (high in meat, sugar, fat and refined grains) is associated with increased obesity, diabetes, cancer and heart disease as well as changes in gut bacteria. Many of these findings have been reached by comparing populations from different countries.

Using the China Health and Nutrition Survey (CHNS) – an NIH-funded study of more than 15,000 individuals tracked across 25 years – Gordon-Larsen and colleagues will examine whether gut microbiota and plasma metabolites differ depending upon precisely when individuals transitioned from a traditional Chinese diet to a Western diet.

They will specifically compare two groups of people living in neighboring communities of the same region – one that is already urban and one that is currently rural but will undergo urbanization and development throughout the next two years. The researchers will follow these two sample populations for 24 months to see how gut bacteria and host metabolites change with urbanization.

By studying this sample of adults from a rapidly modernizing country, Gordon-Larsen hopes to determine whether microbiome markers of diet changes are associated with specific health outcomes. Her findings will inform future efforts to mitigate early development of disease risk across the globe.

“This is an exciting research project that could lead to the discovery of small molecules and/or bacterial taxa that could serve as biomarkers for disease risk,” said Elizabeth Mayer-Davis, PhD, Cary C. Boshamer Distinguished Professor and chair of the nutrition department at the Gillings School. “These potential findings could also establish the foundation for additional studies designed to determine cause-and-effect relationships between diet, the gut microbiota and development of disease.”

The grant will be funded through June 2019, with Gordon-Larsen as primary investigator. Gordon-Larsen, who also is president of The Obesity Society – the premier scientific and educational organization dedicated to expanding research, prevention and treatment of obesity – will work in collaboration with researchers from UNC-Charlotte, the University of Pennsylvania, the National Institute for Nutrition and Health and the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: David Pesci, director of communications, (919) 962-2600 or dpesci@unc.edu

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