New Grants fund LA BioMed Research into Obesity Causes

While much of the obesity prevention efforts today focus on diet and exercise, Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center (LA BioMed) researchers are going even further back in time to explore what happens during development in the womb that could lead to overeating and obesity later in life.

Michael G. Ross, MD, MPH, and Mina Desai, M.Sc., PhD, both LA BioMed lead investigators, recently received two grants to further their studies into influences on fetal development that can cause obesity.

With a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), they will be studying whether exposure to bisphenol A (BPA) can alter neuron development in the womb and cause overeating later in life. A second grant from the American Diabetes Association (ADA) will enable them to study links between maternal nutrition and offspring obesity.

“With the growing rates of obesity and medical costs related to obesity, our studies seek to answer the questions about what influences during fetal development could lead to overeating and obesity later in life,” Dr. Ross said. “We have already developed data indicating that BPA exposure, maternal undernutrition or maternal obesity have an impact on fetal brain development, and these grants will enable us to fully explore these linkages and examine their impacts.”

BPA is a ubiquitous industrial chemical that has been used to make certain plastics and resins since the 1960s, and previous studies have found an association between high BPA levels and obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease, and teens with higher amounts of BPA in their urine were also more likely to be obese.

Drs. Ross and Desai will use their $195,000 NIH grant to examine neuron cell development to determine if BPA exposure causes the formation of more appetite neurons, which trigger the desire to eat, and/or fewer satiety neurons, which signal fullness and a desire to stop eating.

“Removing sugary snacks and fatty foods from our menus won’t be enough to halt obesity if our neurons are telling us we’re still hungry,” said Dr. Desai. “The focus of our research is to determine what causes the formation of these neurons during the development in the womb so that we might limit the neural triggers that cause the overeating that leads to obesity.”

Drs. Ross and Desai will use their $60,000 ADA grant to study whether obesity is programmed into the offspring as a result of poor maternal nutrition during fetal development. Preventing obesity is considered crucial to preventing type 2 diabetes, the most prevalent form of the disease. More than one-third of Americans are obese, and the medical costs for obesity are estimated to be more than $147 billion in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The NIH funding is through Grant No. 1R21ES023112-01.