CTSI’s ‘CaneSearch’ Focuses on Obesity and Collaboration

Showcasing its leading-edge research on obesity and collaborative approach to improving patient outcomes, the University of Miami celebrated the launch of the Miami Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI) with its inaugural “CaneSearch,” a daylong research forum dedicated to one of South Florida’s most pressing health challenges.

“We can bring scientific research findings that really count to the bedside of children, women and men in our community, our country and beyond,” said Pascal J. Goldschmidt, M.D., Senior Vice President for Medical Affairs and Dean of the Miller School, in welcoming researchers, students, community leaders and federal health leaders on February 27 to the Schoninger Research Quadrangle, where more than 100 research posters exploring multiple aspects of obesity were on display.

Funded by a $20 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, the Miami CTSI is dedicated to advancing “culturalized health sciences,” a term the UM grant team coined to emphasize the importance of promoting diversity and ending health disparities. Led by Cuban-born José Szapocznik, Ph.D., chair of epidemiology and public health at the Miller School of Medicine, the Miami CTSI is one of only two such centers in the Florida, and spans all UM campuses.

“Leadership is so important to good healthcare outcomes, and you have an excellent team here,” said John Ruffin, Ph.D., director of the NIH’s National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities, which is funding the Miami CTSI with the NIH’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences. “You also have the best laboratory in the world for research into minority health disparities, as Miami is at the forefront of what the rest of our nation will look like in 20 years.”

Szapocznik said input from the South Florida community was the key driver in the Miami CTSI’s decision to focus first on obesity, including the disparities between Hispanics, blacks and non-Hispanic whites. He noted that about 66 percent of adults and up to 20 percent of children ages 2-4 are obese or overweight in Miami-Dade County, where nearly 80 percent of the residents are members of racial and ethnic minorities.

“We are bringing scientists, clinicians, students, staffers and community partners together to fight this major public health problem and to encourage others to become involved,” Szapocznik said.

One of the day’s highlights was a Collaborative Research Exchange Forum (CREF) chaired by Tracie L. Miller, M.D., professor of pediatrics, Director of the Division of Pediatric Clinical Research and co-director of the CTSI’s Miami Center for Research Participation and Partnership component. Miller explained how her research on malnutrition among HIV-positive children in the 1980s gradually evolved to focus on obesity, which is often linked to protease inhibitors, the antiviral drugs that have transformed HIV from a fatal to a chronic disease. “Although malnutrition and obesity seem worlds apart, both involve metabolic processes that affect cell and organ function,” she said.

CREF panelist Steven E. Lipshultz, M.D., professor of pediatrics, the George Batchelor Endowed Chair in Pediatric Cardiology, and Director of the Batchelor Children’s Research Institute, emphasized the importance of addressing obesity in childhood rather than trying to cure diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular problems or other serious health conditions in adulthood.

Lipshultz said that U.S. childhood obesity has increased from 5 percent in 1972 to nearly 20 percent today, and added, “In order to achieve the national goal of seeing that percentage start to decline, we need to understand the course of the disease and develop effective interventions early in life.”

Outlining a series of 13 groundbreaking studies by the Childhood Obesity Research Collaborative Team, Lipshultz said it is important to understand the risk factors to determine which can be modified by effective intervention strategies. For example, Lipshultz noted, the risk of obesity among Haitian immigrant children increases dramatically with their length of stay in the U.S. He singled out the pilot Healthy Inside-Healthy Outside (Hi-Ho) multicenter study, which involved 309 children, 60 percent of whom were Hispanic, as one successful intervention. “Testing multiple obesity strategies in child care centers and with families led to positive outcomes,” Lipshultz said.

Panelist Hermes Florez, M.D., Ph.D., M.P.H., professor of medicine and epidemiology, Chief of the Division of Epidemiology, Interim Chief of the Division of Gerontology and Geriatric Medicine at the Miller School and Interim Director of the Geriatric Research, Education and Clinical Center at the Miami VA Healthcare System, focused on the correlation of obesity with heart attack, stroke, diabetes and other metabolic problems in adults. “Obesity is at the root of the worldwide diabetes epidemic,” he said, adding that the Diabetes Prevention Program Research Group at the Miller School found that lifestyle interventions are most effective in reducing this chronic health condition.

Welcoming CaneSearch participants to an evening reception at the University of Miami Life Science & Technology Park, Szapocznik and Richard Bookman, Ph.D., the Miller School’s Senior Advisor for Program Development & Science Policy, emphasized the collaborative aspects of the Miami CTSI, which will work closely with the University of Florida CTSI to improve health outcomes for the state’s residents.

In a brief presentation with Bookman on “One Florida: Working Together for a Healthy State,” David Nelson, M.D., professor of medicine, molecular genetics and microbiology, associate dean for clinical research, and Director of the University of Florida CTSI, discussed the many benefits of a ‘Canes-Gators research partnership. “We believe these two great universities can translate research and discovery into improving the health of our communities,” said Nelson. “We can align our strengths to leverage the NIH investment in our state.”

In addition to the poster session, the daylong CaneSearch event included fitness demonstrations, healthy food trucks and other vendors, giveaways and live music.

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