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What do residents of rural Arkansas and researchers in Trento, Italy, have in common, aside, perhaps, from a love of good food? Well, in the case of an ongoing major research program, food is the common link. Well, not exactly food—the good folks in Arkansas aren’t exchanging recipes with the scientists in northern Italy—rather, both groups are actively involved in the Delta Obesity Prevention Vitamin Study, which seeks to unravel the complex molecular nutritional interplay of diet, exercise, genetics, and obesity.
The study’s long-term goal is to create dietary guidelines that will reduce the incidence of obesity and its related chronic diseases among the residents of the Lower Mississippi Delta, a region of the southern United States that is plagued by corpulence and its complications. The research program is among the first of its kind, since it combines community-based participatory research with translational biomedical strategies that include molecular genetic nutrition research. The results could have far-reaching implications, not just for the rural populations of the Lower Mississippi Delta, but also for national and international public health agencies that seek to prevent and treat obesity.
Study participants at an Arkansas summer camp
The study tracks the health and habits of a group of adults and children in Marvell, Arkansas, looking for links between obesity and diet, physical activity, genetics, and body chemistry. A joint effort of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the Delta Obesity Prevention Research Unit, the study has turned to The Microsoft Research – University of Trento Centre for Computational and Systems Biology (COSBI) for analysis of the complex molecular data.
Data on the Arkansas participants were compiled at the outset of the study, at the end of a five-week intervention with a more nutritious diet, and one month after the completion of the intervention. The joint analysis of the resulting extensive and complex body of data has been possible thanks to the network biology competencies of COSBI. By using their unique capabilities in molecular nutrition, the researchers at COSBI are analyzing data about the participants’ genotype, habitual diet, blood metabolite levels, and DNA methylation to help elucidate the molecular bases of obesity. If successful, the project could eventually make it possible for medical professionals to provide patients with dietary advice that is tailored to each person’s specific genome.
COSBI is a joint venture between Microsoft Research and the University of Trento; established in 2005, the centre focuses on the convergence of the life science and computer science, with a goal of understanding biological principles at all levels, from molecules to ecosystems.
—Fabrizio Gagliardi, Director, Microsoft Research Connections EMEA (Europe, the Middle East, and Africa)