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Metabolic diseases such as obesity are the leading causes of deaths among adults, and are increasingly becoming an epidemic in the U.S. A University of Hawaiʻi Cancer Center researcher has been awarded $3.1 million from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to further his research efforts to provide new body composition technologies to detect the risks of metabolic consequences of obesity among young children. These include hypertension, type 2 diabetes and premature heart disease.

john shepherd headshot
John Shepherd

John Shepherd, in collaboration with partner Steven Heymsfield, of the Pennington Biomedical Research Center, are working on a study called Shape Up! Keiki (children). This observational study of 360 children, between the ages of birth to five years, will create advanced models of body shape from 3D optical whole-body scans. This study will provide clear descriptions of how body shape and composition are related to metabolic risk factors—high blood pressure, increased cholesterol levels and risk of developing cancer among children of Hawaiʻi and the Pacific.

Through this study, Shepherd hopes to provide newly found health traits in children, including emotional stability and management of stress levels, by studying their body shape and providing tools to visualize and quantify body shape in research and clinical practices.

“Obese adolescents have their most rapid weight gain before the age of five, and are usually already obese by that age. Despite clear connections between obesity and disease risk, pediatric obesity research is limited due to the lack of appropriate body composition technologies,” said Shepherd.

The outcome of the Shape Up! Keiki study will provide descriptions of how the body shape of Hawaiʻi residents varies across their lifespan with technological tools that will be useful to probe the intricate relationships of aging, activity level, diet and genetic associations related to diabetes and fatty liver disease.

In the future, Shepherd hopes this technology will be accessible worldwide through consumer-level gaming and smartphone technologies, which will help parents and pediatricians monitor their children’s health from home.

This research is an example of UH Mānoa’s goal of Excellence in Research: Advancing the Research and Creative Work Enterprise (PDF), one of four goals identified in the 2015–25 Strategic Plan (PDF), updated in December 2020.

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