UM Researcher Wins 2011 Micah Batchelor Award to Study Childhood Obesity

Surrounded by family, colleagues, University leadership, and some of the Miller School of Medicine’s top researchers, Sarah E. Messiah, Ph.D., M.P.H., received the prestigious 2011 Micah Batchelor Award for Excellence in Children’s Health Research. Also attending the award ceremony were Batchelor Family Foundation Trustees Jack Falk, Dan Ferraresi, and Jon Batchelor, also a UM trustee.

The late George E. Batchelor, a renowned aviation pioneer and philanthropist, established the $300,000 annual award in 2004 in memory of his grandson, Micah, to recognize Miller School investigators researching children’s diseases at the Batchelor Children’s Research Institute. Seeded with a $5 million endowment, it is one of the largest awards nationally for children’s health research.

“Research is a critical component of our mission at the Miller School of Medicine,” Dean Pascal J. Goldschmidt, M.D., said at the November 10 award presentation. “Clearly, research is at the heart of what people like Dr. Messiah do, and it is the cornerstone of what goes on here at the Batchelor Children’s Research Institute on a daily basis.”

Messiah will use her research grant to study children who are candidates for bariatric surgery to better determine the factors and behaviors that influence, and possibly contribute to, their post-surgery weight loss.

“How does a 15-year-old get to be 500 pounds?” Messiah asked. “Clearly there is some pathology at play, but what exactly this is, and what the possible causes are remains unclear.”

Factors such as clinical addiction to food, hormone or intestinal flora imbalance, or environment (or a combination of more than one of these causes) can have a negative effect on post-surgery success.

“Not every patient undergoing bariatric surgery is a success story,” Messiah said, “and we need to know why. There has certainly been a heightened interest in the ‘brain-gut’ connection in light of the current obesity epidemic.”

Other studies have examined post-bariatric surgery behaviors, but Messiah’s will be the first study to look at pre-surgery factors that link clinical measures of possible addictions to food and other substances, intestinal hormone levels, and post-surgery weight loss outcomes. “Our goal is ultimately to identify factors that can maximize success after bariatric surgery. The implications on health care costs for future generations could be tremendous,” Messiah says.

Messiah, who was accompanied at the event by her three children, has long been concerned with child nutrition and obesity, publishing data showing the health repercussions of childhood obesity and school-based obesity prevention outcomes in the Journal of Pediatrics, Obesity, and the American Journal of Public Health.

“More than 1 million U.S. children have a body mass index greater than the 99th percentile,” she said. “Our nation’s children have been getting bigger and bigger. Most importantly, we need to keep them as healthy as possible for as long as possible.”

Aside from celebrating the groundbreaking work being done by scientists and physicians like Messiah, the award was established through one man’s vision and dedication to finding a cure for childhood diseases.

“George Batchelor was passionate about helping children,” said University of Miami President Donna E. Shalala. “For him, supporting children’s health wasn’t about giving money, it was about investing in the future of our country.”

Recognizing Messiah’s collaboration with Nestor De La Cruz-Munoz, M.D., associate professor of surgery and chief of the Division of Laparoendoscopic and Bariatric Surgery, and Sylvia Daunert, Ph.D., Pharm.D., M.S., professor and Lucille P. Markey Chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Steven E. Lipshultz, M.D., chair of pediatrics and associate executive dean for child health, called the award-winning study an “exciting, multidisciplinary approach with long-term implications for preventing—rather than just treating—childhood obesity.”

Echoing that thought, Messiah noted that “we have world-class physicians and scientists in so many disciplines here at the Miller School of Medicine. I honestly don’t think this research could happen at any other institution. I am so grateful for this opportunity, and I want to make the Batchelors proud.”

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