UH Cancer Center researcher awarded $3.1M for pediatric obesity research

January 2022

Metabolic diseases such as obesity are the leading causes of deaths among adults, and are increasingly becoming an epidemic in the U.S. The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) awarded University of Hawaiʻi Cancer Center researcher John Shepherd, PhD, $3.1 million to further his research efforts to provide new body composition technologies to detect the risks of metabolic consequences of obesity, such as hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and premature heart disease, among young children.Three keiki (children) smiling for the camera

Shepherd, in collaboration with his research partner, Steven Heymsfield, MD, at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center, are working on a study called Shape Up! Keiki (children). This observational study of 360 children, between the ages of birth to five years, will create advanced models of body shape from 3D optical whole-body scans. Through this study, Shepherd hopes to provide newly found health traits in children, including emotional stability and management of stress levels, by studying their body shape and providing tools to visualize and quantify body shape in research and clinical practices.

Obese adolescents have their most rapid weight gain before the age of five, and are usually already obese by that age. Despite clear connections between obesity and disease risk, pediatric obesity research is limited due to the lack of appropriate body composition technologies.

This study will provide clear descriptions of how body shape and composition are related to metabolic risk factors—high blood pressure, increased cholesterol levels, and risk of developing cancer among children of Hawaiʻi and the Pacific. In the future, this technology will be accessible worldwide through consumer-level gaming and smartphone technologies, which will help parents and pediatricians monitor their children’s health from home.

The outcome of the Shape Up! Keiki study will provide descriptions of how the body shape of Hawaiʻi residents varies across their lifespan with technological tools that will be useful to probe the intricate relationships of aging, activity level, diet, and genetic associations related to diabetes and fatty liver disease.

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