Question: When is a lab, not really a lab? Answer: When it is the Scientific Collaborative for Overweight and Obesity Prevention Treatment, aka the SCOOPT lab. You won’t find microscopes, test tubes or mice here, but the rest of the set-up is the same and the output is impressive. Founder Eliana Perrin, M.D., M.P.H., and faculty researchers work virtually leading a fluid assortment of approximately 20 fellows, medical and graduate students and postdocs in research on the health effects of childhood obesity. All of the research is translational in one way or another.
“What we really want is for children to be healthy,” emphasized Asheley Skinner, Ph.D., a health policy specialist and one of the core faculty in SCOOPT. “The goal is not to have children lose weight in and of itself. It is the health consequences of being overweight that are the problem.”
For that reason, Skinner and researchers in SCOOPT are looking at cholesterol levels and blood pressure and, in one published study, found that overweight 3-year-olds carry a biomarker of inflammation that may predict future heart disease. They also have found that fasting is not necessary prior to cholesterol screening in children, which, as a practical matter, can make this important health tool more convenient to use in pediatric health care settings. SCOOPT made recent headlines with a publication revealing that, among parents of overweight children, less than 25 percent recall ever being told by a health care provider that their child is overweight. All of these studies point to ways to more practically manage or intervene in the lives of overweight children.
They are looking at influences on childhood obesity from outside the health care setting as well – the practical and societal issues in play. Ongoing research is examining messages children’s movies contain about eating and weight. Other work is analyzing differences in physical activity levels and body mass index by age and gender. They also are leading a national multi-site study on health literacy and numeracy among poor families with babies up to 2 years-old.
“[Being] overweight is a social issue. If you tell a child to lose weight, they don’t view that as ‘You want me to be healthier,’” said Skinner. “They view that as ‘I’m a failure and you think I’m fat, therefore I need to be skinnier like everyone else.’ When what we want is for them to be healthy.” She added that more work is needed in terms of building parents’ self-efficacy in terms of forces beyond their control, such as readily available junk food at school or the relatively higher cost for healthy groceries versus convenience foods for working families.
Skinner’s work is possible, in large part, because of support from the North Carolina Translational and Clinical (NC TraCS) Institute, home to UNC’s NIH Clinical and Translational Science Awards, through the BIRCWH Scholars program (Building Interdisciplinary Research Careers in Women’s Health). BIRCWH provides three years of protected research time, along with mentoring and other resources to guide her toward a career as an independent researcher. Perrin is a graduate of the BIRCWH program herself and now mentors scholars such as Skinner.
Other lead faculty in SCOOPT are Michael J. Steiner, M.D., of UNC’s Division of General Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, and Tamera Coyne-Beasley, M.D., M.P.H., director of the N.C. Child Health Resource Network, associate director of Community Engagement for NC TraCS Institute and a co-leader of the NC TraCS Child Health Core.