The journey of a marathon sleeper

A marathon sleeper who got away left some clues for Emory and University of Florida scientists to Read more

A push for reproducibility in biomedical research

At Emory, several scientists are making greater efforts to push forward to improve scientific research and combat what is being called “the reproducibility crisis.” Guest post from Erica Read more

Exosomes as potential biomarkers of radiation exposure

Exosomes = potential biomarkers of radiation in the Read more

predictive health

Food deserts and cardiovascular risk

Heval Mohamed Kelli, MD got some attention at the American College of Cardiology meeting over the weekend with his work on food deserts — low-income areas distant from access to healthy food.

As Medscape summarized the results: “Atlantans living in disadvantaged areas where the nearest supermarket was a mile or more away were more likely to have hypertension or hyperlipidemia, smoke, be obese, and have higher levels of systemic inflammatory markers and stiffer arteries.”

Kelli_cover

Kelli at Clarkston Health Clinic, which Emory doctors helped establish in 2015. Clarkston is considered a “food desert”.

For more on Kelli’s journey from Syrian refugee to Clarkston, GA teenager to Emory cardiology researcher, check out this feature in Emory Magazine.

His research was conducted through the Emory Clinical Cardiovascular Research Institute, using information on 712 community participants from the META-Health study and 709 Emory/Georgia Tech employees from the Predictive Health study.

Three possibilities for further investigation:

*Income, education, race and geography are intertwined. “Whether lack of access to healthy foods, low income, or low education is driving these processes needs to be further studied,” Kelli and colleagues concluded.

*For detailed maps of food deserts, not just in Atlanta and/or determined using different criteria, the U.S. Department of Agriculture makes it possible.

*This Atlantic article makes the point that “when it comes to nutrition access, the focus should be on poverty, not grocery-store location.” You can lead people to the supermarket (or build one close to where they live), but you can’t make them eat a Mediterranean diet. Studies from Los Angeles showed that obesity increased more in some neighborhoods, even despite a ban on new fast food restaurants.

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Extend that New Year’s energy – to what benefit?

Surveys indicate that many of us make New Year’s resolutions to eat more healthily or exercise more frequently, yet do not sustain the enthusiasm of January throughout the year.

What if the burst of energy and good intentions could be maintained over a longer period, perhaps with the help of a coach? What kinds of health benefits would appear?

Researchers from Emory and Georgia Tech recently published an analysis of the changes in the health profiles in 382 Center for Health Discovery & Well Being participants who completed a one-year evaluation.

The senior author is Greg Gibson, PhD, professor of biology and director of the Center for Integrative Genomics at Georgia Tech. Georgia Tech postdoctoral fellow Rubina Tabassum, now at the University of Helsinki, is the first author.

“What do most people in developed countries need to do? Eat better, exercise more regularly and stress less,” Gibson says. “It’s unclear whether most of the impact comes from the interaction with partners, or simply from participation and goal-setting, but the overall effect is quite good.”

The main points:

*These are “essentially healthy” people — healthier than the general population in the United States – but almost half started out with high blood pressure and cholesterol levels. There was no control group, and not everyone pursued the same exact program. The average age was 48 years and 28 percent of the group was considered obese. That’s less than the United States population as a whole.

*On average, the 382 participants lost a moderate amount of weight (it works out to about three pounds) and saw their blood pressure and LDL-cholesterol go down significantly over that first year (121 to 116 mmHG for systolic BP, 112 to 105 mg/dL for LDL-C). They also reported lower scores for depression and anxiety.

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Fat distribution in black and white women may help predict heart disease

A woman’s body shape – often described as pear, apple or hourglass – is usually determined by the amount of fat in various regions of the body including the bust, waist, arms and hips. New research from Emory University School of Medicine suggests that these patterns of fat distribution may help predict arterial stiffness – a precursor to cardiovascular disease.

Stiff arteries make the heart work harder to pump blood and are associated with atherosclerosis, or the buildup of plaques in vessels that can block blood flow and cause a heart attack.

Noting that fat distribution generally differs between black and white women’s bodies, researchers enlisted 68 black women and 125 white women, all middle-aged, to see whether these patterns could help assess cardiovascular risk.

The study, conducted by Danny Eapen, MD, a cardiology fellow at Emory, used data from Emory’s Center for Health Discovery and Well Being. He presented his findings recently at the American Heart Association’s Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology 2011 meeting.

Using skin calipers, the researchers measured subcutaneous fat in seven sites: the upper chest; midaxillary, or the side of the torso just under the armpit; triceps, or the back of the arm; subscapular, or on the back just below the shoulder blade; abdominal; suprailiac, or just above the front of the hip bone; and the thigh.

“Black women have higher rates of cardiovascular disease than white women and are more likely to die from it,” says Eapen. “Black and white women also have different patterns of fat distribution, so we were interested in measuring these pockets of fat at various regions of the body to evaluate whether it might be helpful in predicting cardiovascular risk between the two groups.  Our hope was to evaluate whether a quick, easy-to-use clinical tool could aid in further risk stratifying our female patients.”

The study also assessed the arterial stiffness of the women, adjusting for heart rate.

As a group, the black women had greater arterial stiffness than the white women. They also had more subcutaneous fat in the armpit, triceps, shoulder blade and hip bone areas.

In addition, they also found specific race dependent pockets of fat that could be related to arterial stiffness – fat measurements in the triceps area could predict increased arterial stiffness in black women, while fat in the suprailiac areas was a predictor in white women.

Content contributed in part by Sarah Goodwin, Emory’s Center for Health Discovery and Well Being.

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How the fetal environment affects long-term health

David Barker, MD, PhD

Why do some people, given the same apparent set of risk factors, develop certain diseases and others do not? British scientist David Baker, MD, PhD, is examining this question from a unique perspective.

Barker, a professor of clinical epidemiology at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom, is a pioneer in a field known as fetal programming. Fetal programming is the process in which environmental influences during prenatal development alter the body’s structures—for life.

He and other experts spoke on the fundamentals of the subject recently at the first Predicting Lifespan Health Conference at Emory University. “What we’re really looking for is just a few core mechanisms, which are linked to early human development and lead to a plethora of disorders,” says Barker.

Emerging evidence suggests that chronic diseases of adult life, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers, have their origin through fetal programming, explains Michelle Lampl, associate director of the Emory/Georgia Tech Predictive Health Institute. “These diseases and others are initiated by adverse influences before birth,” says Lampl.

Speakers addressed fetal programming and the placenta, long-term cardiovascular disease and kidney function in low birth-weight babies, epigenetics and immunity, as well as postnatal influences from infant diet and growth patterns.

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Hold out your finger: Epidemiologist developing test for colon cancer risk

Years from now physicians may be able to determine whether you’re at increased risk for colorectal cancer by drawing blood from the tip of your finger.

Emory University researchers are working to identify biomarkers to detect a person’s chances of developing colon cancer. Much like blood pressure and cholesterol tests can indicate heart disease risk, researchers here hope that some day the makeup of blood and urine will be able to tell who’s at risk for colorectal cancer, why they may be at risk and what they can do to reduce their risk.

Postdoctoral fellows Joy Owen and Veronika Fedirko examine samples in Robin Bostick’s lab at the Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University.

For now, the Emory study team is analyzing the rectal tissue samples of people with colon adenomatous polyps, non-cancerous growths considered precursors to colon cancer, and comparing them to rectal tissue samples from people who don’t have polyps. They’re also looking at whether the differences they detect in rectal tissue can also be found in blood or urine. Currently, no accepted tests exist to determine whether someone may be at risk for colon cancer.

“Most people would rather provide a blood or urine sample than get a rectal biopsy,” says Robin Bostick, MD, MPH, Rollins School of Public Health epidemiology professor and study principal investigator. Bostick is also a clinical faculty member at the Winship Cancer Institute at Emory and a Georgia Cancer Coalition Distinguished Cancer Scholar.

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Some thoughts on the pursuit of happiness

Corey Keyes, PhD

What does it truly mean to be in good mental health? How are good mental health and mental illness connected? That is, does being in good mental health simply mean the absence of mental illness, or is there more to it than that? And how do people achieve a healthy state of both body and mind?

These are some of the complex questions Emory researchers brought to the fore in a discussion over lunch last month.

Speaker Corey Keyes, an Emory sociologist, made clear the absence of illness does not necessarily mean the presence of health. He noted that the ancient Greeks batted around the subject of mental health, specifically, happiness. Some championed emotions and pleasures as a path to happiness, others tranquility, freedom and reflection. Read more

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A new trend in medicine: redefining disease

Paul Wolpe, PhD

You may have already heard that last month Emory held its fifth annual predictive health symposium “Human Health: Molecules to Mankind.” Researchers, physicians, health care workers and members of the community from throughout the country met to learn about intriguing research and provocative commentary by health care experts.

One of those experts, Paul Wolpe, director of the Emory Center for Ethics, says health care has changed as more and more aspects of ordinary life or behaviors are being redefined as medical. For example, being drunk and disorderly has become alcoholism. Now, virtually all of life is being redefined in biological terms, he says. And that, says Wolpe, has led to an increase in health care costs. We have an enormous amount of new things that we are calling illness, and we expect our health care system to treat them, he says. “We are creating a new category of disease called pre-symptomatic.”

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Coordinating care a key to health reform

Kenneth Thorpe, PhD

Last month, Emory held its fifth annual predictive health symposium “Human Health: Molecules to Mankind.”Researchers, physicians, health care workers and members of the community from throughout the country learned of intriguing research and listened to provocative commentary by health care experts. Kenneth Thorpe, chair of health policy and management at Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health, discussed the elements of health reform that may be getting lost in the reform process– redesigning the delivery system to prevent and avert the development of disease.

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From the Predictive Health Symposium

Predictive Health logoEmory and Georgia Tech kicked off their fifth annual predictive health symposium, “Human Health: Molecules to Mankind,” Dec. 14-15. Researchers, physicians, health care workers, and interested community members were treated to some intriguing and provocative findings and commentary.

Emory President James Wagner and Georgia Tech President Bud Peterson introduced the symposium, along with Fred Sanfilippo, MD, PhD, CEO of Emory’s Woodruff Health Sciences Center. Sanfilippo emphasized that predictive-personalized health is one of the most innovative and promising solutions to our current health care crisis. Medicine today stands at the brink of an achievable goal to tackle the most serious issues facing the health of humans – the ability to predict, reduce, and in many cases eliminate the specific illnesses we each face.

To achieve this goal, he said, we must understand why each of us has a different risk and response to diseases and their treatment, based on our unique differences in biology, behavior and environment. And then we have to use that knowledge to determine the right treatment at the right time for each individual.

Keynote speaker Penny Pilgram George, president of the George Family Foundation and co-founder of the the Bravewell Collaborative, said, “We currently have a disease management system based on episodic care, which means we treat symptoms instead of problems…True healing can only begin when we correctly diagnose the problem and treat the root cause.”

We know we could prevent half of chronic illness, said George by simply teaching people to eat nutritionally, adopt health habits such as nonsmoking, build positive relationships, live and work in nontoxic environments, practice stress reduction, stay fit through some form of exercise, and be purposely engaged in life. If we only treat disease after it occurs and do not promote health, we will have missed the whole point. We need to create a culture of health and well being.

And this from W. Andrew Faucett, director of the genomics and public health program at Emory, who cautioned that although many personalized genetic tests are now available through numerous sources, individuals and clinicians have to weigh the benefits, risks, and usefulness of this evolving technology. People may not even want to know some things revealed by genetic testing, and not everything revealed may be clinically useful or related to disease risk. For example, matters such as one’s true ancestry or revelations concerning one’s paternity may unexpectedly come to light. Furthermore, the accuracy of personalized genetic testing should be carefully considered. Also, a negative result is never truly negative, because there are so many factors involved and some of them can change.

Faucett also spoke about the differences between relative risk and absolute risk. “Anytime you’re talking about genetic risk for disease, you have to present risk in multiple ways,” Faucett said.

Kenneth Thorpe, chair of health policy and management at Emory, talked about the elements of health reform that may be getting lost in the reform process– redesigning the delivery system to prevent and avert the development of disease. Thorpe focused on Medicare because he says, it’s “the most acute offender of the system.” That is, it encompasses some of the most difficult problems that health care reform faces. The typical Medicare patient, he said, is an overweight hypertensive diabetic with back problems, high cholesterol, asthma, arthritis, and pulmonary disease. And that typical patient sees two different primary physicians, a multitude of specialists, and fills 30 different medications. Yet, Medicare does nothing to coordinate the patient’s care. As a result, preventable admissions and readmissions rates are “off the charts,” he says. But, data show that coordination could cut those rates in half.

Because today’s patients have chronic health care conditions that require medical management, said Thorpe, the hope is to develop a preventive and personalized health plan that identifies problems before they manifest and employs care coordinators to guide patients while they’re at home.

And Paul Wolpe, director of the Emory Center for Ethics, says health care has changed as more and more aspects of ordinary life or behaviors are being redefined as medical. For example, being drunk and disorderly has become alcoholism. Now, virtually all of life is being redefined in biological terms, he says. And that has led to an increase in health care costs. We have an enormous amount of new things that we are calling illness, and we expect this health care system to treat them, he says. “We are creating a new category of disease called presymptomatic.”

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An invitation to be healthy and stay healthy

Predictive Health blog photoThere’s a place in Midtown Atlanta called the Center for Health Discovery and Well Being, where people can go to be healthy and stay healthy.

This fresh approach to wellness marks a new model of healthcare called predictive health, which focuses on defining and maintaining health rather than treating disease.

The Center for Health Discovery and Well Being collects and analyzes physical, medical and lifestyle histories, and up to 50 different blood and plasma tests to create a personalized health action plan for each participant. Participants also act as research partners, as data from their assessments is used to discover and develop predictive markers of health and well being. Those markers are ultimately used to create health-related interventions. What’s more, the center is part of a research partnership between Emory and Georgia Tech called the Emory/Georgia Tech Predictive Health Institute.

Located on the 18th floor of the Medical Office Tower (MOT) at Emory University Hospital Midtown, the center occupies an architecturally innovative atmosphere that includes flowing spaces, soothing colors, and a big city view.

Healthy individuals, including those with well-controlled chronic conditions, may enroll in the Center.

The Center for Health Discovery and Well Being web site offers detailed information, testimonials, and an application for participation.

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