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W&L’s I’Anson Wins Grant to Study Early Obesity in Children

Helen I’Anson, professor of biology at Washington and Lee University, has won a $95,399 grant from the Commonwealth Health Research Board (CHRB) to fund one year of research into the role of snacking in the early onset of obesity in children. In making the award, the CHRB noted that I’Anson’s research could lead to the development of appropriate interventions during early childhood.

I’Anson is the John T. Perry Jr. Professor of Biology and Research Science and will conduct the study with her co-investigator, Gregg Whitworth, assistant professor of biology at W&L, and three Washington and Lee students.

“I’m really pleased to receive this grant,” said I’Anson, “because I think we need to have information about what makes children more vulnerable to the onset of early obesity. As far as I’m aware, no other group is looking into this, and all pointers suggest that this research could be really important.”

I’Anson noted that 22 percent of youth in Virginia are obese, and that snack foods account for up to 27 percent of children’s daily caloric intake. For a long time, health experts have touted small frequent meals and exercise to control weight gain. I’Anson thinks that the advice brought about the advent of snacking. “It’s very common for children and parents to carry bags of snacks, so children are constantly eating,” she said.

While the developmental period under investigation —weaning to adulthood — takes a long time in humans, rats complete this development in just six to seven weeks. So I’Anson has developed a new model for using female rats for the research.

Previous studies from other laboratories have shown that when adult humans or rats eat a high-fat diet for a few weeks, males are more adversely affected than females in terms of sensitivity to insulin, glucose tolerance, fat storage and weight gain.

I’Anson noted that if a female rat’s ovaries are removed, then she becomes as vulnerable as the adult male. With the addition of estrogen, the male rat becomes less vulnerable. “So it’s something to do with estrogen from the ovaries,” said I’Anson. “Being a developmental biologist, my first thought was that if adding estrogen makes females less vulnerable, then they must be developing their vulnerability as children, because they don’t have the sex steroid, estrogen, during the period from birth to puberty because the reproductive system is inactive.”

She continued, “It was sort of obvious to me, but nobody has checked whether the reason we have this enormous population of obese and overweight adult people is because they have probably developed the syndrome and the problems when they were children.”

In a pilot study, I’Anson’s research students gave one set of rats healthy snacks (high in fiber and protein), and another set of rats unhealthy snacks (high in fat and simple sugars). They found that rats, like children, have taste preferences and binge on snacks they like. On the days they binged, the rats gained weight. By the end of the study, they had a slightly elevated growth trajectory, meaning that they would grow to be a little bit bigger than the animals that didn’t get the snacks.

“You could say that a couple of grams is not much weight gain, but when you think about humans, if you gain a pound a year, then 10 years later you’re 10 pounds heavier than you should be. So gaining just a little bit each week is enough to make a rat bigger when it gets to be a middle-aged adult, which is when we see a lot of the problems,” explained I’Anson.

I’Anson’s research team also found that the rats had a significantly greater amount of visceral fat in their bellies, irrespective of whether they had healthy or unhealthy snacks. Visceral fat is linked to diabetes and insulin insensitivity. “This was a real surprise to us,” said I’Anson. “We thought the rats that ate the healthy snacks would be somewhere in between, but they had as much fat deposition as the unhealthy snack group, which says that having that continuous supply of food, snacks plus meals, predisposes us to store the fuel.”

According to I’Anson, the part of the brain that regulates food intake becomes unable to regulate a person’s body weight as it normally would. It starts to defend a new body weight, bigger than it should be, and tends to spiral out of control.

“So, with this new research, we are trying to find out if this idea of vulnerability during the developmental period from weaning to adulthood, when a person starts to eat proper food and potentially snacks, is true,” said I’Anson. “We’re looking for what signals are changing in the bloodstream that could be measured in humans. We’ll also be looking at protein levels and gene expression in certain genes that we think might be important in this process. Hopefully, our research will get other people interested in working in this particular area.”

The three students involved in the research work with I’Anson on all aspects of the project. They are Leslie dela Cruz, a junior biochemistry major from Jacksonville, Florida, and sophomores Candler Clawson from Columbia, South Carolina, and Steven Allen, a Johnson Scholar from King’s Mountain, North Carolina.

“This research is an interesting introduction to a professional research setting,” said dela Cruz. “One of the great lessons I’ve learned is that it’s OK to try and fail and ask a lot of questions in science. I’ve also gotten a lot of practice in translating what I’m doing and communicating it to a general audience,” she said. As an HHMI (Howard Hughes Medical Institute) Fellow, she receives two years of research opportunities, travel and other programs, made possible by a $1 million grant to Washington and Lee from HHMI.

Clawson said that her ability to participate in research influenced her decision to come to W&L. “It’s one of the few universities where undergrads, especially first-years, can get involved in research. We get hands-on experience, and a lot of the research we do on our own. We have to come up with solutions and problem solving. It contributes a lot to your understanding of how real-world applications work with research and how procedures are developed, and the implications of your actions.”