School of Medicine wins obesity grant

Stanford School of Medicine has won a $12.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to pilot and develop an unusually long-term program to combat childhood obesity, potentially leading the way for other programs in the future nationwide.

The grant comes as part of the NIH’s $49.5 million Childhood Obesity Prevention and Treatment Research (COPTR) program. Three other universities — Vanderbilt, University of Minnesota Twin-Cities and Case Western — also received COPTR grants.

Stanford School of Medicine won a $12.7 million grant to develop a program to combat childhood obesity. Participants will be recruited from East Palo Alto, East Menlo Park and Redwood City.

Thomas Robinson M.D. ’88, director of the Center for Healthy Weight at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, will lead the research team designing the program.

“[Dr. Robinson] has done a lot of really superb groundwork with families, schools and communities,” said Fernando Mendoza M.D. ’75, a professor of pediatrics who researches childhood obesity. “We tend to set out a standard format. Clearly there are a lot of ways to lose weight…Tom’s program is holistic. It takes all those things into account.”

The Center for Healthy Weight’s current intensive six-month program helps 80 percent of its participants shed excess weight through fun, stealthy interventions like dancing and soccer.

“That model works well for the families able to do it,” Robinson said. “The new program will be in a community setting because, for some families, they have no availability or there’s [no program] in their area.”

The seven-year grant will finance a new study following 240 obese children between the ages of 7 and 12, as well as their families, for three years. Participants will be drawn from local towns like East Palo Alto, Redwood City and East Menlo Park.

“Very few programs last three years — most last a couple of months,” Robinson said. “We’ve chosen the populations we work with to be quite diverse as well so that results can be applied across the county.”

The children will receive medical care from their existing primary care providers and will be enrolled in an after-school program through organizations like Boys & Girls Clubs or YMCA. Half the children will be enrolled in a standard after-school program, and half will learn healthy eating and exercise habits in specially designed after-school programs and receive home visits to ensure the living environment is conducive to weight loss.

This will be one of the largest and longest studies ever conducted on childhood obesity prevention and will include analysis of its cost-effectiveness.

“It is a very comprehensive program…the challenge will be to find the parts of the program that work best and [ensure] the services are provided in the most effective way possible,” said Jay Bhattacharya M.D. ’97,Ph.D. ’00, who will lead the investigation into the cost-effectiveness of the program.

If cost-effective, the pilot program could serve as a model for childhood obesity prevention programs across the country.

The pilot would be a success “if it would demonstrate that this model is effective in helping over-traditional medical models,” Robinson said.

Bhattacharya said the money recognizes excellence in obesity research that Stanford has practiced for many years. The grant “is more of an indicator of how strong the program is already,” he said.

COPTR comes in the midst of a national effort to combat the growing problem of childhood obesity. Still, Robinson said even more investment is needed in the long term.

“Forty-nine million is a drop in the bucket,” he said. “Much more investment needs to go into an epidemic we’re already facing, that’s having huge impacts on health and economics in this country.”