September 26, 2023

Dr. Kari North

Dr. Kari North

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has recently awarded a team of researchers at the University of Texas (UT), UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health and Vanderbilt University funding as part of a $50.3 million “multi-omics” grant to research the genetics that contribute to human health and disease. The team, which includes Kari North, PhD, professor of epidemiology at the Gillings School, will specifically focus on liver disease associated with obesity in Mexican-American communities in southern Texas.

“Liver disease is highly prevalent in this population,” North explained. “We’re beginning to see it even among children. Fatty liver disease is often a silent disease, but it can progress to terrible cirrhosis and even liver cancer. And although liver cancer is very rare, it’s much more common in Hispanic/Latino individuals than in other populations.”

Recent developments in technology have enabled researchers to gain a deeper understanding of biological susceptibility to disease through “omics” – a collective term that refers to the study of individual parts of human biology, such as genomics, epigenomics, transcriptomics, proteomics and metabolomics. Each of these data types reveals distinct information about different aspects of a biological system.

But while this technology has produced large amounts of data to help us understand the progression of disease, data sources have primarily come from people with European ancestry. This new NIH grant will help researchers broaden the diversity of data sources, which has the potential to address health disparities, such as those seen in obesity-associated liver disease (also called nonalcoholic fatty liver disease) among the Mexican-American population in the study.

Researchers will also collect data on participants’ environments and social determinants of health to be used in conjunction with the multi-omics data. Combining the multi-omic and environmental data can offer an even more comprehensive view of the factors that contribute to disease risk and outcomes.

The team will be led by Professor Joe McCormick, MD at UT, along with North at the Gillings School and Associate Professor Piper Below, PhD, at Vanderbilt. The funding will support the collection of “omics” data across three time points in a five-year period to document the progression of liver disease and improve understanding of disease processes. The study will include 200 participants with prevalent liver disease and 100 participants without disease chosen from a 20-year NIH-led cohort study called the Cameron County Hispanic Cohort (HCHS).

The research team’s goal is to identify potential targets for intervention in those who already have obesity-associated liver disease and potential biomarkers that could identify those at high risk before they develop significant liver disease.

The grant, which is funded specifically by the NIH’s National Cancer Institute, will run over five years, and North says the first year will involve planning the most effective “omics” approach.

“Our idea is to recruit from the actual HCHS cohort so that not only would we have the data we’re collecting for this study, but we would also have 20 years of stored samples and data and measurements,” she said. “We have the potential to expand this short, five-year window and go back 20 years to really look at the life course of the disease.”

About the National Cancer Institute (NCI): NCI leads the National Cancer Program and NIH’s efforts to dramatically reduce the prevalence of cancer and improve the lives of cancer patients and their families, through research into prevention and cancer biology, the development of new interventions, and the training and mentoring of new researchers. For more information about cancer, please visit the NCI website at or call NCI’s contact center, the Cancer Information Service, at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).

About the National Institutes of Health (NIH): NIH, the nation’s medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit

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