Arkansas Children’s Research Institute Receives $9.4 Million NIH Award to Establish Center of Biomedical Research Excellence in Childhood Obesity Prevention



Hilary DeMillo • Arkansas Children’s
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Andrea Peel • UAMS
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LITTLE ROCK, AR. (Aug. 8, 2016) – The Arkansas Children’s Research Institute (ACRI) announced today that it is creating a center for the study of childhood obesity with a $9.4 million grant funded by an Institutional Development Award (IDeA) from the National Institutes of Health. The center will be integral to Arkansas Children’s Hospital’s plans to build a statewide network of care, while addressing one of the state’s most daunting public health crises.

The award creates the ACRI Center for Childhood Obesity Prevention, established as an IDeA Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) – the first of its kind to be located at ACRI. The IDeA program builds research capacities in states that historically have had low levels of NIH funding by supporting basic, clinical and translational research, faculty development, and infrastructure improvements.

Funding will support the center’s creation and operations for the next five years.

Led by Judith Weber, PhD, RD, the multidisciplinary Center for Childhood Obesity Prevention will strengthen ACRI’s obesity research capacity and create mentoring pathways for emerging scientists who will focus on pediatric obesity. This new center at ACRI will also serve as an anchor for the development of a comprehensive pediatric obesity program at Arkansas Children’s.

“We envision a future where parents don’t have to worry about their child developing any of the countless complications children face because of obesity,” said Dr. Weber, who will serve as director of the ACRI Center for Childhood Obesity Prevention. She is also a professor of Pediatrics in the College of Medicine at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS). “This center will be a prime example of how research translates into interventions, creating a brighter future for kids right here in Arkansas and around the nation.”

The award marks the third major childhood obesity initiative this year to receive substantial government backing on the ACRI campus. It will enable Dr. Weber and her colleagues to better understand the origins of pediatric obesity and lead to the development of interventions focused both on prevention and reducing associated complications such as hypertension and diabetes.

This work will directly contribute to the Arkansas Children’s mission to make children better today and healthier tomorrow.

In establishing the center, Dr. Weber and her research team will work to prevent the rise in Arkansas’ childhood overweight and obesity rates, which now stand at 39 percent for all children, according to the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement (Year 12 Report; The goal is to reduce this rate significantly over the next five to 10 years.

“Through the translation of discoveries into new knowledge that can be directly applied for families across the state, this new center will transform the decisions communities make on their children’s behalf,” said Gregory L. Kearns, PharmD, PhD, FAAP, president of ACRI and senior vice president/chief research officer for Arkansas Children’s Hospital and a professor of Pediatrics in the UAMS College of Medicine. “We are thrilled to have the support of NIH as we set out on the next stretch of our journey to prevent childhood obesity.”

In its first five years, a COBRE focuses on developing research infrastructure and providing junior investigators with formal mentoring and research project funding to help them acquire preliminary data to successfully compete for independent research grant support.

“A COBRE award of this magnitude makes a substantial difference in our ability to tackle a problem as complex and difficult as childhood obesity,” said Pope L. Moseley, MD, executive vice chancellor of UAMS and dean of the College of Medicine. “The mentoring and training programs it supports will boost Arkansas’ scientific capacity in this area for decades to come.”

ACRI Center for Childhood Obesity Prevention junior investigators will examine topics such as how interventions during pregnancy can reduce the risk of childhood obesity, how preschool educators can influence obesity prevention, how developmental and environmental influences affect obesity and educational well-being, and how to better inform policies addressing childhood obesity.

The center’s junior investigators will have guidance from experienced research mentors to complete these projects and to obtain funding independent of the center. Further, the COBRE award provides two core research units, one in biostatistics and another in metabolism, to support the investigators. Leading the metabolism core will be ACRI Investigator Elisabet Borsheim, PhD, who also directs the Physical Activity, Energetics and Metabolism Lab at Arkansas Children’s Nutrition Center (ACNC) and is an associate professor of Pediatrics at UAMS. ACRI investigator Mario Cleves, PhD, director and section chief of Pediatric Biostatistics and a professor of Pediatrics at UAMS, will direct the biostatistics core.

Unique to the center is the direct involvement of the Arkansas Department of Health. Joy Rockenbach, Act 1220 coordinator for the Arkansas Department of Health, will serve as the deputy director of the center to help guide its scientists to closely align their work with public health initiatives.

“It is my hope that the work of the center will help inform and provide the evidence for the obesity prevention strategies included in the Healthy Active Arkansas plan, endorsed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson in 2015,” Dr. Weber said.

Dr. Weber and the mentoring teams expect the junior investigators to become independent within two years of support, after which new junior investigators will replace them to establish their own childhood obesity research projects. This will enable continued growth of the program. Following the initial five-year award period, COBRE grants can be renewed for an additional two five-year periods.

In addition to ACRI, key institutional and state partners include the Arkansas Department of Health, the Arkansas Children’s Nutrition Center, the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement, the UAMS CTSA Translational Research Institute, the UAMS Department of Pediatrics, the UAMS College of Public Health, the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, and the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service. Other state and federal institutions and programs, nonprofit organizations, and the public and private business community statewide are also partners, including the Arkansas Coalition for Obesity Prevention, the Child Health Advisory Committee, and the School Nurses Association.

Arkansas Children's Hospital (ACH) is the only pediatric medical center in Arkansas and one of the largest in the United States serving children from birth to age 21. Over the past century, ACH has grown from a small orphanage in Little Rock to a statewide network of care that includes an expansive pediatric teaching hospital and research institute, as well as regional clinics in several counties. ACH also reaches children across the state and nation through a range of telemedicine capabilities that ensures every child has access to the best care available, regardless of location or resources. The hospital's campus in Little Rock spans 36 city blocks and is licensed for 359 beds. ACH has a staff of 505 physicians, more than 200 residents in pediatrics and pediatric specialties and more than 4,000 employees. A campus under development in northwest Arkansas will bring 233,613 square feet of inpatient beds, clinic rooms and diagnostic services to children in that region of the state. A private nonprofit, ACH boasts an internationally renowned reputation for medical breakthroughs and intensive treatments, unique surgical procedures and forward-thinking research — all dedicated to fulfilling its mission of championing children by making them better today and healthier tomorrow. For more info, visit

Arkansas Children’s Research Institute (ACRI) is a free-standing state-of-the-art pediatric research center which provides a research environment on the ACH campus to foster research and scholarship of faculty members of University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences who are investigating questions relative to development, disease and treatment as it relates to the health of infants, children and adolescents. Physician and biomedical scientist investigators at ACRI and the Arkansas Children's Nutrition Center (ACNC) conduct clinical, basic science, and health services research for the purpose of treating illnesses and preventing disease and thereby, improving the health of the children of Arkansas and beyond.

Arkansas Children's Nutrition Center (ACNC) is a national Human Nutrition Research Center established as a partnership between the Arkansas Children's Hospital (ACH) and the United States Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS). ACNC is a premier research venue for the study of maternal-child health and early childhood development.


UAMS is the state’s only comprehensive academic health center, with colleges of Medicine, Nursing, Pharmacy, Health Professions and Public Health; a graduate school; a hospital; a northwest Arkansas regional campus; a statewide network of regional centers; and seven institutes: the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute, the Jackson T. Stephens Spine & Neurosciences Institute, the Myeloma Institute, the Harvey & Bernice Jones Eye Institute, the Psychiatric Research Institute, the Donald W. Reynolds Institute on Aging and the Translational Research Institute. It is the only adult Level 1 trauma center in the state. UAMS has 3,021 students, 789 medical residents and five dental residents. It is the state’s largest public employer with more than 10,000 employees, including about 1,000 physicians and other professionals who provide care to patients at UAMS, Arkansas Children’s Hospital, the VA Medical Center and UAMS regional centers throughout the state. Visit or Find us on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or Instagram.


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