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Massey Researcher Awarded Over $5 million to Investigate Pediatric Obesity and Cancer-related Co-morbidities

VCU Massey Cancer Center researcher Melanie Bean, Ph.D., L.C.P., was awarded over $5 million in grant funding by the National Institutes of Health to study factors that may impact pediatric obesity and cancer-related co-morbidities among traditionally underserved populations.

A member of Massey’s Cancer Prevention and Control research program, Bean is also an associate professor in the Division of Endocrinology and Metabolism at the VCU School of Medicine and co-director of the Healthy Lifestyle Center at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU.

Bean received two separate R01 grants. One study is investigating the role of parents in adolescent obesity treatment. The other is examining the influence that the school food environment has on dietary consumption patterns.

According to the National Cancer Institute, there is consistent evidence that higher amounts of body fat are associated with increased risks of a number of cancers. Research indicates that obesity may worsen several aspects of cancer survivorship, including quality of life, cancer recurrence, cancer progression and prognosis.

“There is an urgent need for innovative approaches to adolescent obesity treatment, particularly among African Americans who face disproportionate obesity risks,” said Bean. “Although family-based lifestyle modification programs are considered the mainstay of treatment for adolescent obesity, the most effective strategy for involving parents in the treatment remains unclear.”

To address the limitation, Bean will utilize an R01 of $3.1 million to lead a five-year investigation on parental involvement in adolescent obesity treatment. Findings may be used to inform the standard of care and clinical practice guidelines.

The study will compare two distinct engagement strategies divided between 210 overweight or obese adolescents who also have overweight or obese parents. In one group, parents will engage in their teen’s weight management through parent skills training, while in the other group, parents will engage in their own weight management.

All adolescents will participate in TEENS, which includes nutrition education with dietary goals, supervised physical activity and behavioral support and coaching. Assessments of weight, dietary intake, parenting and home environment will be completed at intervals, with the primary endpoint at one-year follow-up.

Both parent treatments have been demonstrated to positively impact adolescent weight loss, so this study is investigating which strategy is superior for adolescent weight loss maintenance.

“Results of this investigation have the potential to significantly advance science in this area and ultimately inform clinical practice guidelines related to the role of parents in adolescent obesity treatment,” said Bean.

For her second line of research, Bean will utilize an R01 of $2.5 million to evaluate how school food policy effects dietary consumption patterns, influences student behaviors and contributes to their risk of obesity and other health problems, such as cancer.

Bean will focus her attention on the impact of school salad bars, implemented within the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), a federally assisted program that offers low-cost or free lunches to children in public schools.

“There is great national support for school salad bars as a means to increase fruit and vegetable intake within the NSLP,” said Bean. “However, there is limited empirical research on how salad bars impact this intake.”

Bean will conduct a comprehensive evaluation of salad bars in a northern Virginia school district to gain a better understanding of how salad bars relate to diet quality and energy intake within the NSLP. Twelve pairs of schools will be randomly selected such that half receive salad bars and half serve pre-portioned meals. Schools will be matched on Title I status (a proxy for socioeconomic status) and percent of minority students based on higher obesity risk.

Dietary intake will be assessed objectively in each pair of schools, before salad bars are installed and four to six weeks after, resulting in approximately 14,000 lunch observations throughout the study duration. Cafeteria sales and NSLP participation data will also be examined.

Bean believes that this study has significant potential to inform school nutrition policies and programming designed to enhance dietary intake and reduce obesity in millions of children who participate in the NSLP.

“School meals account for a significant portion of children’s overall dietary intake,” said Bean. “Changing the school environment could be a cost-efficient and effective method for improving dietary intake and decreasing obesity risk.”

For information about Healthy Lifestyles Center clinical and research opportunities, please visit Healthy Lifestyles Center

For more information about TEENS, visit or call 804-827-TEEN.

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