A new research center to tackle the threat of lifestyle diseases — medical conditions such as obesity that are caused or aggravated by a person’s own behavior — will be established at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute (VTCRI) in the heart of the Roanoke Innovation District.

Scientists and clinicians throughout Virginia Tech and Carilion Clinic will join forces at the new VTCRI Center for Transformative Research on Health Behaviors in a strategic effort to protect the health of people in Virginia and the United States, according to Michael J. Friedlander, Virginia Tech’s vice president for health sciences and technology and the executive director of the research institute.

The initiative will be led by two authorities in lifestyle disease research — Warren Bickel, the Virginia Tech Carilion Behavioral Health Research Professor, and Matthew Hulver, the head of the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

“As medical science improves and the diseases caused by biological problems diminish, the proportion of diseases associated with behaviors we do to ourselves — overeating, doing drugs, not following medical advice — are going to be comparatively larger,” said Bickel, who also directs VTCRI’s Addiction Recovery Research Center. “We think the future of health care is in fact understanding and promoting healthy behavior.”

Ultimately, the university intends to amass the talent and resources to compete to become a federally funded National Center of Excellence in translational research in the context of health behaviors and lifestyle-related diseases.

“We all know someone who is dealing with a weight problem, we all know someone who has type 2 diabetes, and we all have witnessed the negative health ramifications of lifestyle-related disease,” Hulver said. “By bringing together VTCRI and Virginia Tech faculty and working with Carilion Clinic and other partners, we can make a real difference and impact the trajectory of lifestyle-related disease.”

Most of the health care costs in the United States are associated with risky health behavior and poor choices characteristic of lifestyle-related diseases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“New treatments for individual diseases from diabetes to addiction emerge every day from research labs across the globe,” Friedlander said. “In comparison, the science to address problems when habits or poor judgment get in the way of health is minimal. This center will unite interdisciplinary researchers and clinical experts to understand behavioral, social, molecular, and metabolic processes associated with lifestyle diseases to protect the health of our citizens and reduce financial pressure on the health care system.”

The VTCRI Center for Transformative Research on Health Behaviors is the first major biomedical research collaboration to emerge from the recently established Virginia Tech Carilion Health Sciences and Technology Campus.

The center was chartered through Virginia Tech’s Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation and will comprise the health behavior research programs led by Bickel at the VTCRI and research programs initiated under the Fralin Translational Obesity Research Center.

Initially, the center will involve faculty from VTCRI, the College of Science, and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Kevin Davy, a former co-director of the Fralin Translational Obesity Research Center and a professor of human nutrition, foods, and exercise in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, will continue his work with the new center and continue to direct Virginia Tech’s Translational Obesity Research Interdisciplinary Graduate Education Program.

“With the global population swelling by an additional 2  billion people in the next 30 years, our college is anticipating and responding to important challenges and creating partnerships that will make a difference in Virginia and around the globe,” said Alan Grant, dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “Working alongside Virginia Cooperative Extension, we protect and preserve human health while seeking to understand food choices, food security, obesity, lack of physical activity, and lifestyle-related diseases.”

Along with faculty from VTCRI and Carilion Clinic, faculty from the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and additional Virginia Tech colleges, including the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, will be encouraged to complement lifestyle-disease research at the new center.

“We have long recognized the importance of partnerships in addressing the problem of unhealthy lifestyles and related diseases,” said Michael P. Jeremiah, chair of the department of family and community medicine at Carilion Clinic and the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, and senior medical director of population health with Carilion Clinic. “This type of innovative research has the potential to unlock new ways of helping people overcome their own individual health challenges, and we look forward to continuing to improve health in the communities we serve by integrating our work with the new center’s plans.”

Beyond creating interactions with health care providers and researchers, center programs will leverage Virginia Cooperative Extension in efforts to modifying health behaviors and the prevention and treatment of lifestyle-related diseases.

Next steps for the new center include organizing space on the Virginia Tech Carilion Health Sciences and Technology campus and aligning faculty and staff for optimum research success, the center directors said.

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