U of A diabetes projects receive first funding from new NOVAD fund

Three projects will tackle diabetes and obesity for seniors, youth, and Canadian newcomers.

RYAN O'BYRNE - 30 October 2019

Three University of Alberta research projects focusing on diabetes and obesity are the first-ever to receive funding from the new Novo Nordisk Alberta Diabetes Fund (NOVAD)―a partnership between Novo Nordisk Canada Inc., the University Hospital Foundation and Alberta's Ministry of Economic Development, Trade and Tourism.

The projects, led by three of the U of A's top diabetes and obesity researchers, include developing home-based strategies for frailty prevention in adults with diabetes, understanding the socio-cultural aspects of obesity and diabetes in newcomers to Canada, and expanding research into obesity levels of preschool children over time.

Launched in June 2018, the Novo Nordisk Alberta Diabetes Fund is a three-year, $2.5 million fund to advance innovations long-term health outcomes, quality of life, and economic prosperity for Albertans suffering with diabetes and obesity. The funding was recently announced at Invest Alberta's Inventure$ 2019 event, which brought together investors, entrepreneurs, service providers and thought-leaders to share the latest in innovation, research and capital access.

"The Foundation is so thankful for the support from our community members to help fund these forward-thinking projects through the NOVAD fund. Public-private philanthropic partnerships like this allow us to tackle significant global health problems with greater combined experience and perspective to develop innovative solutions," said Christy Holtby, vice president, strategic partnerships with the University Hospital Foundation. "Alberta specifically is uniquely positioned for these partnerships because of the strength of our life sciences sector, the proven willingness of many organizations to partner with a common vision and the provincial government's commitment to increasing economic diversification by building Alberta's knowledge economy."

The projects
The three successful projects are being led by: Diana Mager, associate professor in the Department of Agricultural Food and Nutritional Science, adjunct in the Department of Pediatrics and a member of the Women and Children's Health Research Institute (WCHRI) and Alberta Diabetes Institute (ADI); Denise Campbell-Scherer, professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Associate Dean of Lifelong Learning and Physician Learning program and a member of ADI; and Padma Kaul, professor in the Department of Medicine, adjunct in the School of Public Health and a member of WCHRI and ADI.

Diana Mager
Development of innovative home-based strategies for frailty prevention in the community in adults with Diabetes and Chronic Kidney Disease.

According to Mager, frailty in adults results in reduced muscle mass/strength and increased vulnerability to the complications of chronic issues like kidney disease and diabetes. Frailty can make it more difficult to perform everyday activities of life such as grocery shopping, dressing, or preparing the family meal. Most importantly, frailty can lead to an increased frequency of hospitalization and reduced health-related quality of life.

Mager's project is exploring frailty prevention strategies that can be done in the patient's home, not only to help patients better manage their conditions, but also to ensure they can access care in the first place.

"I was specifically interested in pursuing a home-based program, because it was something my team heard again and again from people as we studied the evolution of frailty in a population of adults with chronic kidney disease and diabetes," Mager said. "This is so important because many Albertans live in rural communities where access to health care facilities or resources, especially for kidney disease and diabetes, can be limited."

"I'm grateful for the NOVAD funding which will give us the opportunity to transition from clinical settings into community-based settings for treatment of frailty."

Denise Campbell-Scherer
Addressing clinical and social determinants of health to advance obesity and diabetes prevention and management in vulnerable newcomer ethno-cultural communities.

This participatory research project is a collaboration led by Campbell-Scherer with Thea Luig, Karen Lee, Rose Yeung and Yvonne Chiu of the Multicultural Health Brokers Cooperative. The team will examine clinical and social determinants of health for both obesity and diabetes prevention and management in newcomer communities.

"People living with obesity and type 2 diabetes want and need care that is tailored to their lives in order to be able to make changes to improve their health," Campbell-Scherer said.
Over the course of the 18-month project, Campbell-Scherer and her team will work closely with community representatives to develop culturally-responsive and multi-sectoral approaches to obesity/diabetes care for newcomers. The project will also work on a primary care resource kit for addressing obesity and diabetes in Edmonton's vulnerable newcomer population, as well as training for primary care providers. Along with improving health outcomes, Campbell-Scherer is also hoping to gain a better understanding of the community context and the environments in which newcomer populations live that play a role in their health.

"The NOVAD funding will help us take an important step towards helping Edmonton's vulnerable ethnocultural newcomer communities," she said. "The funds will help us link community health workers, primary care providers, newcomer patients with obesity and diabetes, public health professionals, policy makers, and researchers to build the foundation for continued research, development and implementation.

Padma Kaul
Examining social and clinical determinants of childhood obesity at the population level.

One of the ways researchers are approaching obesity and diabetes is from the perspective of addressing the issue of childhood obesity. Over the past 30 years, childhood obesity rates have nearly tripled, and as unhealthy patterns of behaviour in children stay with them throughout their lives, obese children are more likely to become obese adults. Research has shown that while the number of obese children remains high, those numbers might be starting to come down.

Padma Kaul's team examined more than 160,000 Alberta children between the ages of four and six from 2010 to 2017. They found the prevalence of overweight children decreased from 17.8 to 15.7 per cent over the eight-year period, while the number of obese children dropped from 4.7 to 4.2 per cent. At the same time, the rate of severely obese preschool children remained virtually static at 2.2 per cent.

Kaul and her team believe their findings point to the fact that managing obesity involves a variety of factors, and requires several different sectors to be involved, noting that "different, complementary, and dynamic strategies will be needed to prevent excess weight in children." Although the findings show a hopeful trend of lower weights in young children, Kaul admits significant work still needs to be done.

"We've made a significant first step in demonstrating the multiple variables that impact childhood obesity. The NOVAD funding will help us take the research to the next level, which will hopefully include mapping out how different partners across Alberta can play a part in helping our children, and families, be healthier."