NIDDK Director's Update Winter 2011

News Around NIDDK

Studies to promote healthy weight gain during pregnancy aim to improve outcomes for mother and child

Pregnant Woman

More than half of American women are overweight or obese, with even higher rates in some minority groups and women with lower incomes. Obesity is of particular concern in women who become pregnant, as they have an increased risk for excessive weight gain during pregnancy and post-pregnancy weight retention. Overweight and obese pregnant women also have more complications, such as gestational diabetes mellitus, pre-term delivery, and hypertension. Longer-term effects include increased risk for obesity and type 2 diabetes in both the mother and her child.

To improve the health of both generations, NIDDK is funding studies of lifestyle interventions in overweight and obese pregnant women. The studies, together called Lifestyle Interventions for Expectant Moms, are designed to promote appropriate weight gain during pregnancy and will follow both the mother and child for at least a year after the birth.

“The health of a woman during her pregnancy is pivotal to both her and her child’s health, and with this research, we hope to improve the outcomes of both,” said Dr. Mary Evans, director of NIDDK’s Special Projects in Nutrition, Obesity, and Digestive Diseases. “Studies of lifestyle interventions designed to produce weight loss in women who aren’t pregnant have shown health benefits. Pregnancy represents a unique opportunity to intervene and control weight gain, which may have long-term health benefits for both the mother and her offspring.”

To find out if lifestyle interventions will help overweight and obese women gain an appropriate amount of weight during pregnancy and the impact of the interventions on the health of mothers and babies, researchers at institutions around the country—including NIDDK’s intramural program, through the Phoenix Indian Medical Center—will be conducting seven independent but collaborative studies.

Along with NIDDK, several other NIH components are supporting the project, including the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development; the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine; the Office of Research in Women’s Health; and the Office of Behavioral & Social Science Research.

“Each site will be designing their own lifestyle intervention, but all of them will collaborate as a group to collect a core set of data in a standardized way for both mother and infant,” Dr. Evans said. This will allow us to look across studies at important results.” A team of scientists at the George Washington University will serve as a Research Coordinating Unit, which was funded in the fall of 2011. Details of the lifestyle interventions and common measures are now under development by study investigators. Study participant recruitment will likely begin in late 2012.

Nossal awards offer fellows multiple benefits

By Anne Wright

Dr. Nancy Nossal

Mastering the art of research grant writing can be challenging but worthwhile. To help NIDDK research fellows in that pursuit, the NIDDK Fellowship Office created the Nancy Nossal Fellowship Award program.

Originally known as the Scientific Director’s Award, the Fellowship Office launched the award program in 2005 to complement the NIDDK’s grant-writing workshops and provide fellows with “real world” grant-writing experience, according to Fellowship Office Director Dr. Louis Simchowitz. The award program was renamed in honor of Dr. Nancy Nossal (pictured, left), former chief of the then-titled NIDDK Molecular and Cellular Biology Lab, after she died in 2006.

“Rather than simple grant-writing practice sessions, which people don’t work on with the same degree of seriousness, this [award program] gives fellows some incentive—a monetary award,” said Simchowitz.

NIDDK postdoctoral fellows, research fellows, visiting fellows, and clinical fellows are all eligible to apply for the competitive award, which is judged by a volunteer panel of intramural investigators.

NIDDK postdoctoral fellow and award recipient Michelle Bond said writing the grant helped clarify her research objectives.

“When you write a grant, you get a clearer picture of your research objectives,” Bond said. “I started writing the grant within the first month or two of my time at the NIH, so it helped me to orient myself and outline my experiments.”

Bond, who works in the NIDDK Laboratory of Cell and Molecular Biology, is studying the role of O-linked N-acetylglucosamine (O-GlcNAc) in innate immunity.

Winning a Nossal award can also be a resume builder, said Dr. Michael Krause, interim NIDDK deputy scientific director and chief of the NIDDK Molecular Biology Lab. “It goes on your resume as a competitive award.”

The program also has benefited both fellows and the NIDDK by raising the visibility and improving the quality of mentoring, said Simchowitz.

Research and clinical fellow awardees receive a one-time cash award of $5,000. Visiting fellows and Intramural Research Training Award postdoctoral fellows who receive the Nossal award have their annual stipend increased by $2,500.

The Fellowship Office accepts applications twice a year, on March 1 and September 1, and names between 8 and 12 awardees each year. Ten fellows received an award in 2011.

For more information about the Nancy Nossal Award and a list of award recipients, visit the NIDDK Fellowship Office website.

Alaska Native program draws population to medical sciences

Kori with everclear

A while back, Dr. Lawrence Agodoa found himself on a small plane going to a small town north of the Arctic Circle in Alaska. Though Agodoa, director of NIDDK’s Office of Minority Health Research Coordination, wasn’t a fan of the transportation, he was intent on the goal of his travel: to talk with about 150 Alaska Native students and to encourage them to get a taste of hands-on medical research through NIDDK’s Alaska Native Undergraduate Summer Internship Program (ANUSIP).

“The need is clearly there,” said Agodoa of involving Alaska Native students in medical sciences. Alaska Natives are poorly represented in medical sciences, he said, and ANUSIP aims to change the statistics, one talented future researcher at a time. “We felt we needed to do more outreach, to give these students a clearer path to becoming physician researchers.”

To that end, the summer program—begun in 2008—provides up to four Alaska Native undergraduates with 10 weeks of basic or clinical research education and training with experienced faculty active in research related to NIDDK’s mission, as well as a stipend for living expenses and for transportation to take part in an annual scientific research presentation.

Especially for students from rural villages, taking part in the program can be a difficult choice, Agodoa said. Families may expect their help in hunting and gathering during the summer, and traveling within the state—even in summer—can spell a long haul.

Yet the opportunity to do research on medical issues that may someday help those same communities is a great one. For Kori Radcliffe (pictured, top left, with alcohol used in making ethanol solutions), a student from Eagle River at the University of Alaska in Anchorage, the program enabled her to get more hands-on research experience. She wanted to work on a study related to alcoholism and, with the help of UAA professor Dr. Ian van Tets, learned about ANUSIP.

The internship, in which she studied the effects of ethanol consumption in a species of dwarf hamsters, also helped direct her future. “This program furthered my aspirations to become a physician and to continue research throughout my career as a student and a professional,” Radcliffe said. “The program acted as a catalyst for forming new hypotheses in my current research as well.”

Having a program targeted toward Alaska Native students is vital, Radcliffe said. “It provides individuals of the Alaska Native population an opportunity to employ their unique knowledge and experiences to further progress in health and science. Such opportunities reinforce other students’ thirst for knowledge and excitement to partake in research opportunities.”

Agodoa said that attracting young people to medical sciences and helping connect them to research opportunities is a core component of the program. He hopes that the fruits of the students’ careers will be better health for Alaska Natives, as well as everyone else. “This is what NIH is all about, what our office is all about, giving a helping hand and changing lives for the better.”

For more information about ANUSIP, go to Research & Training Opportunities for Students.

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