Kentucky getting $22 million for obesity research

Kentucky's leading universities will receive more than $22 million to establish research centers examining the connection between diabetes, heart disease and obesity.

The grants are part of $54 million the National Institutes of Health awarded Thursday to five researcher centers across the United States.

The University of Kentucky will receive $10.5 million, and the University of Louisville will receive $11.6 million.

It's no coincidence that two Kentucky universities received the five-year grants, said Lisa Cassis, a professor of nutritional sciences and internal medicine and the lead investigator on the UK grant. Kentucky has high rates of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease, she said.

"Researchers and clinicians here recognize that these are things that impact people's daily lives," Cassis said.

The money will allow the universities to hire and support additional investigators in these areas.

At UK, the money will support research to identify how obesity leads to diabetes and heart disease.

Cassis suspects that inflammation plays a role, as both diabetes and heart disease involve inflammation. She and others will examine how inflammation starts, if it's spurred by fat cells or if it's something else.

At U of L, the NIH grant will support research examining the relationship between heart disease and diabetes. Men and women who have diabetes are much more likely to die from heart disease, said Aruni Bhatnagar, a professor of medicine at U of L.

"Our underlying philosophy is that diabetes is a cardiovascular problem," he said.

In addition to looking at the effects of diabetes on blood vessels, researchers will examine whether stems cells harvested from adult blood vessels and hearts could repair damage done during heart attacks. The stem cell research will be done using animal models, Bhatnagar said.