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The research institute at Arkansas Children's Hospital in Little Rock has been awarded a grant providing $9.4 million over five years to support research on childhood obesity, hospital officials said Monday.

The money will be used to create the Center for Childhood Obesity Prevention, which will support research projects by four "junior investigators" from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and other universities and organizations on topics such as environmental factors or steps taken during pregnancy that can affect a child's chances of becoming obese.

The center will also provide additional laboratory and statistical staff members and equipment to support the obesity research at the Arkansas Children's Research Institute, where the center will be housed.

Gregory Kearns, president of the research institute, called the grant a "major, major step" toward reducing the state's childhood obesity rate.

"To my knowledge this is going to be the largest, most comprehensive endeavor focused on obesity prevention in children," he said.

A 2015 survey by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 36 percent of Arkansas high school students were obese or overweight based on what they reported as their height and weight.

That tied the state with Mississippi for the highest percentage in the country.

Based on children's measurements in the 2014-15 school year, the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement found that about 39 percent of public school students in kindergarten through 10th grade were overweight or obese.

A summary of the Arkansas Children's Research Institute grant applications lists a goal of reducing the rate by about 3.8 percentage points over five to 10 years.

Joy Rockenbach, who coordinates childhood obesity prevention programs for the Arkansas Department of Health, said the center's research will help guide the state's efforts.

"It may even turn up some things that we haven't even thought about at all," Rockenbach said.

As deputy director of the Center for Childhood Obesity Prevention, Rockenbach said, she will be helping "lay people understand more about what the research is."

The grant, from the National Institutes of Health's Institutional Development Award program, provides funding to researchers in Arkansas and 22 other states that have historically received less funding from the federal agency than other states.

Judith Weber, a UAMS professor of pediatrics who will be the new center's director, said each junior investigator will work under the guidance of more experienced mentors.

After two years, the junior researchers will be required to apply for their own grant funding from the National Institutes of Health. That will clear the way for other junior researchers to receive funding from the Center for Childhood Obesity Prevention.

At the end of the five-year grant period, the center can apply for renewed funding for up to two additional five-year periods, she said.

Pope Moseley, dean of the UAMS College of Medicine, said the grant will help university researchers who receive the funding as well as others who will benefit from enhancements to the research institute's facilities.

"This is a great example of institutions in Arkansas coming together," he said.

Metro on 08/09/2016

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Print Headline: Institute to study obesity in kids

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