UAMS Researchers Receive Grants Totaling $2.2 Million To Study Obesity, Diabetes Relationship

By todd

LITTLE ROCK – Researchers at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) are examining how obesity relates to diabetes development in a study funded by three collaborative grants totaling $2.2 million from the National Institutes of Health.


Gov. Mike Huckabee announced the grants today and the importance of research in addressing medical problems caused by obesity.


As we promote healthy lifestyles in Arkansans, we must wrestle with treating the deadly and costly medical problems, like diabetes, that are caused by being overweight,” Huckabee said. “These UAMS scientists are conducting groundbreaking research right here in Arkansas that could find ways to prevent the development of diabetes.”


Understanding the relationship between obesity and diabetes could lead to new treatments for diabetes – already the state’s sixth leading cause of death. Almost 8 percent of Arkansas’ population has diabetes and obesity is a main contributor to its development.


The three principal investigators, who each received a grant, are:

  • Philip Kern, M.D., an expert in obesity and insulin resistance who is a professor of endocrinology in the UAMS College of Medicine and chief of staff for research at the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System (CAVHS);
  • Robert E. McGehee Jr., Ph.D., an expert in fat cell biology and development who is an associate professor of pediatrics, physiology and biophysics, and pathology, in the UAMS College of Medicine and dean of the UAMS Graduate School; and
  • Charlotte Peterson, Ph.D., an expert in muscle cell biology who is a professor of geriatrics, physiology and biophysics in the UAMS College of Medicine and research scientist at CAVHS.

Governor Huckabee is someone who has been a true role model for all Arkansans in the fight against obesity and health problems like diabetes that it can cause,” said UAMS Chancellor I. Dodd Wilson, M.D. “We at UAMS are especially proud of the governor and his health transformation because he sought help in losing his weight from our own Dr. Phillip Kern, who is now working with Drs. McGehee and Peterson on this exciting collaboration.”


The chancellor welcomed the governor and introduced the three researchers in a news conference at the Biomedical Research Building on the UAMS campus.


“Obesity is the most common and powerful force for creating insulin resistance and diabetes, however, the molecular basis of this association is not well understood,” Kern said. “Through this study we hope to document the interactions between muscle and fat cells that lead to insulin resistance and potentially identify a way to stave off diabetes development in moderately obese patients with impaired glucose tolerance.”


The grants from the National Institute of Diabetes & Digestive & Kidney Diseases of the National Institutes of Health are for four years.


By looking at the accumulation of fat in muscle tissue of moderately obese study participants, the researchers hope to identify the cellular mechanisms that cause a pre-diabetic condition (impaired glucose tolerance) and development of insulin resistant, type 2 diabetes. The study will examine the impact an existing diabetes treatment has on the cellular interactions between fat and muscle, possibly indicating a method for preventing development of diabetes.


“There are extremely overweight people who never develop diabetes while there are moderately overweight people who do, and the reasons for those differences are not well understood,” said McGehee, who is also director of the Arkansas Cancer Research Center’s Cell Differentiation and Signaling Program. “Our study seeks to further support the proposition that it’s not so much obesity but the amount of fat in muscle that leads to insulin resistance.”


Resistance to insulin, the protein that regulates the body’s blood sugar level, is believed to be largely tied to an accumulation of a specific fat, intramyocellular lipid (IMCL), in muscle tissue during the development of obesity in persons with impaired glucose (sugar) tolerance. This buildup could be caused by the interactions between fat and muscle cells in persons whose bodies cannot process glucose efficiently.


“Finding a method for reducing fat in muscle tissue could lead to more interventional strategies to prevent development of diabetes,” Peterson said. “This study is the perfect example of researchers and physicians collaborating to bring new medical treatments from the laboratory to the clinic and help patients.”


The researchers will examine samples of fat cells from the lower abdomen and muscle cells from the thigh taken from subjects before and after a 10-week study period. Participants who have impaired glucose tolerance based on a screening test will be given the drug pioglitazone, a clinically-approved treatment for type 2 diabetes. The drug has been shown to reduce the amount of IMCL in cells.


Researchers hope to recruit about 200 participants for the study. Participants should be non-diabetic and between 20-50 lbs. overweight with a body mass index score (BMI) between 27 and 38. BMI is calculated by dividing your weight by your height (in inches) squared multiplied by 703.


Study subjects will be paid based on their level of participation. To contact the study coordinator to see if you qualify for participation, call 501-257-5893. The screening process for the study will include a glucose tolerance test and examination of a blood sample to see if the subject fits the study criteria.


UAMS is the state’s only comprehensive academic health center, with five colleges, a graduate school, a medical center, five centers of excellence and a statewide network of regional centers. UAMS has more than 2,200 students and 660 residents and is the state’s largest public employer with almost 9,000 employees. UAMS and its affiliates have an economic impact in Arkansas of $4.3 billion a year.


UAMS centers of excellence are the Arkansas Cancer Research Center, Harvey and Bernice Jones Eye Institute, Donald W. Reynolds Institute on Aging, Myeloma Institute for Research and Therapy and Jackson T. Stephens Spine & Neurosciences Institute.