From research to reality: solving the obesity epidemic

The 1970s was a decade of historical firsts: Atari Games was founded in 1972, the first handheld telephone was introduced in 1973 and McDonald’s opened its first drive-through window in 1975.

At the same time, the rates of obesity and Type 2 diabetes began to rapidly increase at unprecedented rates. That upward trajectory has continued to this day, according to Griffin Rodgers, director of the National Institute for Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, of the National Institutes of Health.

Rodgers addressed students, faculty and community members on Wednesday morning at 140 The Fenway at an event hosted by Northeastern University’s Office of Government Relations and the Bouvé College of Health Sciences.

Recent estimates suggest that obesity and diabetes rates have plateaued, but Rodgers noted, “That still leaves a large number of Americans who are currently obese and at risk for complications.”

He said obese and overweight individuals face an increased risk of suffering from a litany of serious health problems that extend beyond Type 2 diabetes, including stroke, cardiac disease and various types of cancers.

A variety of research projects across the nation are currently focused on tackling the obesity and Type 2 diabetes epidemics. Nearly 60 percent of NIDDK’s budget of $2 billion goes toward funding investigator-initiated R01 grants, making basic research a clear focus for the institute. But, Rodgers said, knowledge is of little use “unless it is somehow disseminated to the general public, patients and policy makers.”

Rodgers pointed to the Diabetes Prevention Program and a related outcomes study, which found that increased exercise results in a 60 percent reduction in the rate of Type 2 diabetes among high-risk participants. The benefit is even greater among individuals older than 65, who are at the greatest risk for getting the disease.

“But how do you translate those results from a study that only involves three thousand people to affect those 79 million Americans who are at risk?” Rodgers asked.

In answer, he pointed to funding opportunities like the Small Business Innovation Research program and the Small Business Technology Transfer program, which aim to bring ideas from the lab bench to the real world. He noted that these programs are of particular relevance to the ongoing work at Northeastern, “because of your experiential-education program and your outstanding basic science departments.”

In opening remarks, Tim Leshan, vice president for government relations, noted that the NIDDK’s focus on fixing real-world problems such as diabetes aligns with Northeastern’s commitment to solve global challenges in health, security and sustainability. “With our experiential model of education and our use-inspired model of research, we want to have an impact on real-world problems,” he said.