UWM researcher-led team awarded $3.6 million grant for child obesity study

Michele Polfuss leading a team with representatives from four children's hospitals

Children's Wisconsin
Children's Wisconsin

Last updated on July 10th, 2019 at 01:16 pm

A researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin is leading a national research team in a $3.6 million federal grant to study obesity in children with spina bifida.

Michele Polfuss, joint research chair in the nursing of children at UWM and Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, is leading a project team that includes health professionals from pediatric spina bifida programs at CHW, Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles, Children’s Hospital of Alabama-Birmingham and Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, who are working with 232 children.

The five-year grant was awarded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, which is part of the National Institutes of Health. Additional support comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Spina Bifida Patient Registry and the Spina Bifida Association.

Children with spina bifida, a congenital condition of the spine and spinal cord, have a higher rate of obesity compared to their peers. One barrier to better prevention of obesity is accurately assessing body fat. The research team is investigating methods of accurately measuring patients’ body composition in a clinical setting.

For people who are not disabled, health providers are able to accurately assess a person’s weight status by measuring the person’s height and weight to then calculate a body mass index.

That method doesn’t work well for children with spina bifida who may be unable to stand or have orthopedic complications that challenge their ability to have an accurate measure of height or weight performed, said Polfuss.

“Children with spina bifida are known to have a decreased level of energy expenditure, although we cannot specify how much less as compared to their typically developing peers,” Polfuss said. “Our hypothesis is that the number of calories we currently recommend parents feed their children may be higher than it should be, inadvertently contributing to excess weight gain.”

The project is aimed at providing families with better guidance regarding nutritional intake recommendations, with the ultimate goal of preventing and treating obesity.

“We are happy to help lead the effort on this important and needed research,” said Nancy Korom, chief nursing officer and vice president at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin. “Our mission is to have the healthiest children in the state, and through this multi-site initiative, we can improve the health of children across the nation.”

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