Post: USC and CHLA win $24.5 million NIH grant to establish center aimed at improving Latino health across Southern California

BY Leigh Hopper OCTOBER 13, 2021

The Southern California Center for Chronic Health Disparities in Latino Families and Children will focus on reversing obesity and obesity-related chronic diseases in Latinos with culturally sensitive solutions.

USC, in partnership with Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, has won a $24.5 million NIH grant to launch a center aimed at fighting obesity and related chronic diseases in Latino children and families across Southern California.

This new regional center will establish a consortium across 10 counties, home to nearly 11 million Latinos who represent 45.2% of the population. The consortium brings together universities, hospitals and community groups; the goal is to develop and test culturally sensitive, family-based interventions to the complex stew of early-life nutrition, environment and social factors that set kids up for risk of obesity and obesity-related chronic diseases for the rest of their lives.

The center is the brainchild of Michael Goran, a professor of pediatrics at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and director for diabetes and obesity at the Saban Research Institute at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA). The hospital, a national leader in pediatric research, is the highest-ranked children’s hospital in California and fifth in the nation on the U.S. News & World Report Honor Roll of Best Children’s Hospitals.

“All the chronic diseases of adulthood, the main killers, those risk factors start getting established in early life, probably even before birth,” Goran said. “That process is more pronounced among Latinos. For example, by 2 years of age, Latinos have much higher prevalence of obesity, are more insulin resistant and already have much higher risk factors for diabetes.”

The center will test new strategies such as the idea of “food prescriptions,” or affordable grocery delivery accompanied by meal plans tailored to Latino culture led by a team at Kaiser Permanente, as well as parent training via telehealth on topics such as reducing sugary drinks in women and infants led by a team at the University of California, San Diego. Promotores de salud, or community health workers, will disperse the center’s findings. A mentoring network and pilot study program will support early-stage or underrepresented researchers and promote team science.

USC researchers seek tailored interventions for the Latino community

Goran, who has focused his research career on the causes and consequences of obesity, especially in Latino children, will co-lead the effort with Lourdes Baezconde-Garbanati, a tenured professor in the department of population and public health sciences at the Keck School of Medicine and an expert in community engagement. The community outreach and engagement offices at both the Southern California Clinical and Translational Science Institute and the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center will play a central role in engaging various partners in Southern California in outreach to Latinos.

“Parents are always very eager to do what they can to improve the health of their children, but interventions can’t be one-size-fits-all. What’s going to make these interventions easy to adopt is they are very culturally- and language-specific,” Baezconde-Garbanati said. “They are developed with community input, and that makes all the difference.”

What’s going to make these interventions easy to adopt is they are very culturally- and language-specific.

Lourdes Baezconde-Garbanati

Latinos are disproportionately affected by multiple chronic diseases, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and abnormal blood lipid levels that can lead to coronary artery disease.

Prior research in young Latino children has been limited to assessments based on height and weight, Goran said, rather than more robust tools such as magnetic resonance imaging to look at fat distribution and liver health, as well as markers of future chronic disease in blood samples. Studies in this new center will utilize state-of-the-art methods for robust clinical assessments.

In addition, he said, no prior study has holistically examined these risk factors in the context of broader environmental and social determinants of health that exacerbate the effects of poor nutrition and exposure to environmental toxins.

“This exciting partnership with USC, CHLA and other institutions across the region reflects our international expertise in childhood obesity and our very strong commitment to improving the health of economically disadvantaged and racially diverse populations in Los Angeles,” said Ishwar Puri, vice president of research at USC. “This perfect marriage of leading biomedical researchers, health organizations and community stakeholders will lead to significant progress in improving community health.”

All-star team will work to lessen risk of obesity and diabetes in Latino children and families

Goran and Baezconde-Garbanati have put together an all-star team that includes:

  • Donna Spruijt-Metz, a research professor of psychology at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and an expert on mobile health and childhood obesity.
  • Kayla de la Haye, an associate professor of population and public health sciences at the Keck School of Medicine who works to promote health and prevent disease by applying social network analysis and systems science to key public health issues.
  • Michele Kipke, a professor of pediatrics and preventative medicine at the Keck School of Medicine and the vice chair of research within the Department of Pediatrics at CHLA.
  • Juan Espinoza, medical director of CHLA’s Innovation Studio and an assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at the Keck School of Medicine.
  • John Elder, a Distinguished Professor in the Division of Health Promotion and Behavioral Sciences at San Diego State University’s School of Public Health.
  • Tanya Alderete, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Boulder whose research aims to determine whether obesity and/or insulin resistance are associated with increased exposure to air pollutants.
  • Kerri Boutelle, a professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, and an international leader in the treatment of children with obesity.
  • Deborah Cohen, a research scientist with the Kaiser Permanente Southern California Health System and an international expert on developing and testing community health interventions.
  • Samuel Klein, director of the Sansum Diabetes Research Institute in Santa Barbara, Calif., one of the world’s leading experts in studies of obesity and metabolic health.

Goran said that when he first learned that the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, one of the National Institutes of Health, was soliciting project proposals for these new centers, a fully-fledged vision popped into his mind.

“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is exactly what we needed to be doing to solve this complex problem.’ I just saw a very clear vision of how I wanted to work.”


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