Researchers Awarded NIH Grant to Study Maternal BMI and Childhood Obesity

July 13, 2023

Researchers at Michigan State University (MSU) and Henry Ford Health were awarded a $3 million grant through the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) within National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study the connections between maternal body-mass index (BMI) and childhood obesity.

Though maternal BMI is a strong predictor of a child’s BMI, science has not yet identified the specific mechanisms that underlie this relationship. The NIH study, “A Pre-, Peri-, and Post-natal Approach to Understanding the Risk and Mechanisms for Obesity”, will enroll 600 child and mother pairings to explore the biochemical pathways that could contribute to the development of childhood obesity. By analyzing data that includes blood glucose, blood pressure, metabolic state, antimicrobial exposures and gut bacterial communities from mothers with normal, overweight and obese BMIs, the researchers hope to determine which biological mechanisms elevate a child’s risk of developing obesity – and identify interventions that could halt that trajectory in infancy.

Co-principal investigators Sarah S. Comstock, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at MSU, and Andrea E. Cassidy-Bushrow, Ph.D., epidemiologist and senior scientist in the Department of Public Health Sciences at Henry Ford, will lead the project. They are joined by co-investigators Jean Kerver, Ph.D., associate professor of Epidemiology and Biostatistics in the College of Human Medicine at MSU, and Sara Santarossa, Ph.D., assistant scientist also in the Department of Public Health Sciences at Henry Ford.

“This project will generate important multidimensional ‘omics data’ to identify microbes, metabolites, and potential causal pathways that may lead to obesity,” said Comstock. “My expectation is that this dataset will enable us to identify microbially produced metabolites which can be targets of future treatments to prevent obesity in susceptible children. We hope that understanding the earliest origins of obesity can help us change the health trajectory of millions of U.S. children.”

“We can efficiently conduct this work because participants will be recruited from our existing pregnancy cohorts, allowing us to quickly build in new and important directions,” said Kerver. “I am excited to work with this research team because they are so dedicated to scientific discovery that will yield practical information to improve human health.”

“Through our collaboration across MSU and Henry Ford Health, we will be able to study some of the potential earliest origins of obesity in children from a variety of Michigan communities,” added Cassidy-Bushrow. “Given that Michigan ranks in the top half of the U.S. for childhood obesity, this provides an opportunity to tackle a public health issue of high relevance to our state.”

The research collaboration between Comstock, Cassidy-Bushrow, Kerver and Santarossa represents the ongoing efforts of Michigan State University and Henry Ford Health to amplify the strengths of both institutions through Henry Ford Health + Michigan State University Health Sciences (Henry Ford + MSU). Introduced in 2021, the 30-year partnership is focused on discovering and advancing a new standard of health to transform life, while working to fight the health disparities that plague Michigan’s most vulnerable communities, rural and urban. Joint planning is currently underway for a state-of-the-art medical research facility in Detroit.

“Joint research efforts focused on promoting public health and disease prevention such as this new grant award are one of the key strategic pillars of this partnership agreement, and we have a long legacy of epidemiological studies of maternal and child health in metro Detroit,” remarked Christine Cole Johnson, Ph.D., M.P.H., Henry Ford + MSU partnership board member and Chair of Henry Ford Health’s Department of Public Health Sciences. Johnson, Cassidy-Bushrow and Santarossa also hold appointments in the College of Human Medicine at MSU.

“Collaborative projects like this one demonstrate the tremendous potential of the partnership between Michigan State University and Henry Ford Health,” said Leslie D. Bourquin, Ph.D., chairperson of the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at MSU. “We are just beginning to explore these exciting possibilities and the many ways in which our joint research programs will advance public health.”

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