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Published in CenterView on November 04, 2013
Dr. John Hall, right, presents a plaque of appreciation to Dr. James Hill, for delivering the Robert M. Hearin Distinguished Lecture Oct. 17.
Dr. John Hall, right, presents a plaque of appreciation to Dr. James Hill, for delivering the Robert M. Hearin Distinguished Lecture Oct. 17.

MCOR scores major grant package to battle state’s foremost health crisis

By Jack Mazurak

Sprouting from the fattest state in the U.S., the Mississippi Center for Obesity Research recently scored a half-million dollar gift and a major grant package that will help make the state’s most-obese label work to its advantage.

The University of Mississippi Medical Center also recently welcomed a visiting distinguished obesity researcher to campus, who gave insight from a successful program in the nation's thinnest state, Colorado.

A $500,000 gift this month from insurance giant Aflac and an $11.4 million National Institutes of Health research grant package will fund new hires, research projects and new equipment, and will help move laboratory findings into clinics to treat patients and clinical observations into labs for detailed analysis.

Now at three years young, and with Dr. John E. Hall, professor and chair of physiology and biophysics, recently installed as its director, MCOR has donned its tracksuit and laced its running shoes.

"The gift from Aflac and our recent NIH award both recognize the health crisis that obesity poses to the U.S. and particularly in Mississippi, and reinforces our ability and obligation to address the crisis on multiple fronts," Hall said.

The Aflac funding, $100,000 annually for five years, will be used mainly to recruit new faculty, he said.

The center heretofore used hardcore laboratory studies to drill into the fundamentals of what makes obesity happen on molecular, cellular and bodily system levels.

But Hall seeks a broader role for MCOR. In the coming five years, he wants to build a team of basic, clinical, and population scientists specializing in obesity, diabetes and related research.

A multidisciplinary team can translate laboratory results into clinical uses that improve the health of patients or, likewise, take clinical observations and population-study findings into research labs for more detailed analysis.

"We also want to develop better treatment programs for obesity, a state-of-the-art bariatric surgery program and a wellness program, which would not only help people lose weight, but also prevent obesity," Hall said.
Outcomes research would collect data on treatments and programs to decipher what methods work best in which situations.

MCOR would develop into a hub to connect researchers, health-care providers, state and local governments, business leaders and community groups to work toward solutions.

The lab work, called basic science research, will continue, too. The $11.4 million from the National Institutes of Health will fund a plan that includes four projects of junior investigators, three core facilities, pilot grant programs and several training mentorship programs.

Two of the junior faculty-led projects investigate diabetes and other kidney diseases closely associated with obesity. The other two focus on how the nervous system and a particular hormone produced by fat influence the heart, kidneys and blood pressure system.

The NIH grant is an Institutional Development Award (IDeA), specifically for institutions in states with underdeveloped research infrastructures.

For years, Hall has maintained that Mississippi's obesity title makes it a prime location for obesity-related research.

During a visit to campus on Oct. 17, Dr. James O. Hill, professor of pediatrics and medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, offered suggestions drawn from his own experience as executive director of the Anschutz Health and Wellness Center, one of the nation's top obesity treatment and research facilities.

Being the most obese state can work to MCOR's advantage, he said.

He underscored Hall's plans in saying MCOR needs a robust obesity-treatment program - one that includes integrative medicine and non-traditional methods - as the clinical core component to its basic science research.

And Hill advocated partnering with the food industry, detailing how Anschutz created 95,000 square-foot building that integrates a research gym for campus employees and study participants, a small grocery story for consumer psychology research, demonstration kitchens and gathering spaces conducive to creating solutions and community involvement.

In the coming year, Hall plans to put an administration and core program in place and develop programs to help basic, clinical and population researchers interact on obesity and related diseases.

Hall said he has an ambitious plan for MCOR, and like solving the obesity crisis itself. It won't happen overnight.

Whether in the world of science, education, policy or prevention, MCOR's workout has just begun. But with momentum from its new resources, Hall said it's already finding its stride.