November 14, 2011

Addressing childhood obesity

Global effort will include investigators from five Johns Hopkins schools

The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has been awarded a $16 million U54 cooperative agreement from the National Institutes of Health to establish a global center of excellence to address the childhood obesity epidemic.

The Johns Hopkins Global Center for Childhood Obesity will emphasize the integration of geospatial analysis with a systems science and transdisciplinary approach to childhood obesity, bringing together basic science, epidemiology, nutrition, medicine, engineering and environmental and social policy research, among other fields, in an unprecedented, innovative way.

Based at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and in collaboration with scientists at the NIH, the center will involve more than 40 investigators from 15 domestic and international institutions, including faculty from five Johns Hopkins schools: the Whiting School of Engineering, the schools of Medicine, Nursing and Public Health, and the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences.

The $16 million grant, provided by the NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the NIH Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research, will fund research and training initiatives over the next five years. The Johns Hopkins University and several other institutions are providing an additional $4 million in funding support.

The Global Center for Childhood Obesity is a key new initiative under the auspices of the National Collaborative on Childhood Obesity Research, which coordinates childhood obesity research across the NIH, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In addition to studying the drivers of the childhood obesity epidemic and environmental and policy interventions, the center will provide rapid-response grants to investigators in the field worldwide to obtain time-sensitive data on environmental and policy changes relevant to childhood obesity.

“The new center will address many needs in the prevention and study of childhood obesity. This initiative will help create research and training opportunities that go beyond traditional methods, and on an unprecedented global scale,” said Youfa Wang, founding director of the center and an associate professor in the Bloomberg School’s Department of International Health.

Layla Esposito, program director from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, said, “The center’s focus on systems science will help train a new generation of researchers and public health professionals to help fight the growing global epidemic of childhood obesity and noncommunicable chronic diseases. We are going to bring together a large number of investigators from many different disciplines and from different countries to address the complexity of childhood obesity.”

The center will provide a research and training infrastructure for building the capacity for integrating systems science into obesity and chronic disease research. Study results are expected to inform policy design and future empirical research.

Michael J. Klag, dean of the Bloomberg School of Public Health, said, “Childhood obesity is a pressing issue in both the United States and developing countries. The Global Center for Childhood Obesity will seek answers to this challenge, which is in line with the Bloomberg School’s fundamental mission of protecting health and saving lives, millions at a time.”

Added Lloyd Minor, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Johns Hopkins, “The Global Center for Childhood Obesity will draw upon resources from across Johns Hopkins University to focus our diverse scientific and academic resources on addressing the obesity epidemic in new ways.”

According to the World Health Organization, worldwide obesity has more than doubled since 1980. In 2008, 1.5 billion adults ages 20 and older were overweight or obese, and 65 percent of the world’s population lives in countries where overweight and obesity kill more people than underweight. Nearly 43 million children under age 5 were overweight in 2010.

According to the CDC, childhood obesity in the United States has more than tripled in the last 30 years. In 2008, more than one-third of American children and adolescents were overweight or obese, a condition that greatly increases the risk of obesity-related illnesses, such as type 2 diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. Prevention of obesity in children is a key to fighting the global epidemic.