Researcher to Lead New Center for Childhood Obesity Prevention

By Ben Boulden

Funded by a $9.4 million, five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), UAMS researcher Judith Weber, Ph. D., and a registered dietitian, will lead the newly created multidisciplinary Center for Childhood Obesity Prevention to look for new ways to help Arkansas children avoid becoming overweight or obese.

Weber, a professor in the UAMS College of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics, will be joined in the center by UAMS researchers Elisabet Borsheim, Ph.D., and Mario Cleves, Ph.D. Cleves also is a professor in the Department of Pediatrics, and Borsheim is an associate professor in the department.


Judith Weber, Ph. D.

At the center, they will strengthen obesity research capacity and create mentoring pathways for emerging scientists who will focus on pediatric obesity. This new center will also serve as an anchor for the development of a comprehensive pediatric obesity program.

“We envision a future where parents don’t have to worry about their child developing any of the countless complications children face because of obesity,” said Weber, who will serve as director of the Center for Childhood Obesity Prevention. “This center will be a prime example of how research translates into interventions, creating a brighter future for kids right here in Arkansas and around the nation.”

Located at the Arkansas Children’s Research Institute (ACRI), the center will be integral to plans to build a statewide network of care, while addressing one of the state’s most daunting public health crises.

In addition to ACRI, key institutional and state partners include the UAMS Translational Research Institute, UAMS Department of Pediatrics, UAMS College of Public Health, Arkansas Department of Health, Arkansas Children’s Nutrition Center, Arkansas Center for Health Improvement, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, and University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service. Other state and federal institutions and programs, nonprofit organizations, and the public and private business community statewide are also partners, including the Arkansas Coalition for Obesity Prevention, the Child Health Advisory Committee, and the School Nurses Association.

NIH has awarded the grant through its Centers for Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) program to support the center’s creation and operations for five years. In those first five years, a COBRE focuses on developing research infrastructure and providing junior investigators with formal mentoring and research project funding to help them acquire preliminary data to successfully compete for independent research grant support.

“A COBRE award of this magnitude makes a substantial difference in our ability to tackle a problem as complex and difficult as childhood obesity,” said Pope L. Moseley, M.D., executive vice chancellor of UAMS and dean of the College of Medicine. “The mentoring and training programs it supports will boost Arkansas’ scientific capacity in this area for decades to come.”

The center’s junior investigators will examine topics such as how interventions during pregnancy can reduce the risk of childhood obesity, how preschool educators can influence obesity prevention, how developmental and environmental influences affect obesity and educational well-being, and how to better inform policies addressing childhood obesity.

Junior investigators will have guidance from experienced research mentors to complete these projects and to obtain funding independent of the center. Further, the COBRE award provides two core research units, one in biostatistics and another in metabolism, to support the investigators.

Borsheim, who also directs the Physical Activity, Energetics and Metabolism Lab at Arkansas Children’s Nutrition Center, will lead the metabolism core, and Cleves will direct the biostatistics core. Cleves also is ACRI director and section chief of pediatric biostatistics.

Unique to the center is the direct involvement of the Arkansas Department of Health. Joy Rockenbach, the department’s coordinator for the Arkansas Childhood Obesity Law, will serve as the deputy director of the center to help guide its scientists to closely align their work with public health initiatives.

“It is my hope that the work of the center will help inform and provide the evidence for the obesity prevention strategies included in the Healthy Active Arkansas plan, endorsed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson in 2015,” Weber said.

Weber and the mentoring teams expect the junior investigators to become independent within two years of support, after which new junior investigators will replace them to establish their own childhood obesity research projects. This will enable continued growth of the program. Following the initial five-year award period, COBRE grants can be renewed for an additional two five-year periods.

The funding will enable Weber, her colleagues and junior investigators to better understand the origins of pediatric obesity and lead to the development of interventions focused both on prevention and reducing associated complications such as hypertension and diabetes.

In establishing the center, Weber and her research team will work to prevent the rise in Arkansas childhood overweight and obesity rates, which now stand at 39 percent for all children, according to the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement (Year 12 Report; The goal is to reduce this rate significantly over the next five to 10 years.

“Through the translation of discoveries into new knowledge that can be directly applied for families across the state, this new center will transform the decisions communities make on their children’s behalf,” said Kearns, who also serves as president of ACRI and senior vice president/chief research officer for Arkansas Children’s Hospital. “We are thrilled to have the support of NIH as we set out on the next stretch of our journey to prevent childhood obesity.”