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Research Led by Joan C. Han, MD, of UTHSC and Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, May Lead to New and Personalized Treatments for Obesity

Healthy Lifestyles Clinic, obesity
Dr. Joan C. Han

A study led by Joan C. Han, MD, an associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC) and founding director of the UT-Le Bonheur Pediatric Obesity Program, may lead to new approaches for the prevention and treatment of obesity based on individual genetic characteristics.

The study, funded by the Intramural Research Program of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and published in the online issue of the journal Cell Reports, identified a natural variation in the brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF) gene. Previously linked to obesity, BDNF is known to influence the feeling of fullness, thereby regulating appetite.

The genetic variation reduces levels of BDNF, blocking feelings of satiety, and thus may lead to obesity. The investigators analyzed brain tissue samples from cadavers to identify the variation.

They then studied BDNF in four groups of people enrolled in national clinical research studies. The results confirmed the variation is linked to obesity, and occurs across the population, but tends to occur more frequently in African Americans and Hispanics.

“The BDNF gene was previously linked to obesity in population studies, and scientists have been working for several years to understand how changes in this particular gene may predispose people to develop obesity,” Jack A. Yanovski, MD, PhD, an investigator at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) and study author, said in a release from the NICHD.

“This study explains how a single genetic change in BDNF, which we discovered is associated with obesity, affects BDNF levels,” he added. “Finding people with specific causes for obesity means we can test treatments that might be more effective because they address patients’ particular challenges.”

The study authors suggest that boosting BDNF levels may serve as a therapy for those with the genetic variation.

“It is my hope that the findings of our research study will serve as the foundation for developing better, personalized approaches for the prevention and treatment of obesity based on individual genetic characteristics,” said Dr. Han, also an NICHD researcher.

Dr. Han sees targeted therapies to help people who have the obesity-predisposing version of the gene as a way to advance precision medicine. “This was an initiative announced by President Obama in this year’s State of the Union Address,” she said. “We need to find specific treatments for specific causes of disease, because one size does not fit all.”

Funding for the study came from the NICHD, the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities, the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease, and the National Human Genome Research Institute, all of which are part of the National Institutes of Health.

In addition to her research duties, Dr. Han, who joined UTHSC and Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in 2014, has been working to tackle the problem of pediatric obesity in Memphis and the Mid-South. In October 2014, she helmed the opening of the Healthy Lifestyle Clinic at Le Bonheur, an outgrowth of the institutions’ joint pediatric obesity prevention and treatment effort supported by the Memphis Research Consortium, and serves as the clinic’s director. Since then, the clinic, with its staff of 20 and support from the hospital and many volunteers, has seen more than 300 patients in a total of nearly 1,000 visits.

 The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development sponsors research on maternal, child and family health. For more information, visit https://www.nichd.nih.gov/.

The National Institutes of Health is the nation’s medical research agency with 27 Institutes and Centers conducting and supporting basic, clinical and translational medical research investigating the causes, treatments and cures for common and rare diseases. For more information, visit https://www.nih.gov.

Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital treats more than 250,000 children each year through community programs, regional clinics and a 255 bed state-of-the-art hospital. Le Bonheur serves as a primary teaching affiliate for UTHSC and trains more than 350 pediatricians and specialists each year. Nationally recognized, Le Bonheur is ranked by U.S. News & World Report as a Best Children’s Hospital. For more information, call (901) 287-6030 or visit lebonheur.org. Connect with Le Bonheur at facebook.com/lebonheurchildrenstwitter.com/lebonheurchild or on Instagram at lebonheurchildrens.