MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Everyone knows someone with metabolic syndrome, though we might not realize it. A cluster of interrelated factors found to increase the risk of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes, the condition presents an immediate public health challenge, particularly in the Mountain State. Matthew J. Gurka, Ph.D., founding chair of the West Virginia University School of Public Health Department of Biostatistics, has been awarded $1.98 million in research funding from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) to gain a better understanding of the progression of this condition over time among different ethnic groups.

The five year R01 grant will support Dr. Gurka, along with co-principal investigator Mark DeBoer, M.D., an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Virginia, in leading a multidisciplinary team of scientists and clinicians in using their recently developed tool to measure metabolic syndrome severity with the hope of reducing the risk of future cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

“There are multiple definitions of the metabolic syndrome, all involving whether a person’s characteristics, such as waist circumference, cholesterol, and blood pressure, exceed a certain predetermined value,” Gurka explained. “These definitions often fall short in providing a way to predict future disease, particularly for African Americans.  We have developed equations that allow practitioners and researchers the ability to quantify the severity of the condition while accounting for these racial and ethnic differences.”

The team plans to study how the metabolic syndrome progresses in various populations, the causes for increasing severity of this condition, and how these increases in severity can predict future disease.

“We hope this tool can be used clinically to identify patients that are at highest risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes so that they can receive earlier or more focused interventions,” Gurka added.

This study will expand upon the team’s prior research demonstrating a need to measure metabolic syndrome severity that also accounts for racial/ethnic differences.

The research group will use large cohort studies, such as the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) Study and the Jackson Heart Study (JHS), to examine how their recently developed severity score changes over time and how those changes could better predict future disease and target earlier interventions. There will also be opportunities to study metabolic syndrome severity in West Virginia, Gurka said.  

“This study exemplifies the impact of collaboration across disciplines,” said Dr. Gurka, who is also the program director of the Clinical Research Design, Epidemiology, and Biostatistics (CRDEB) Program of the West Virginia Clinical and Translational Science Institute.  

“What began as a simple biostatistical consultation with Dr. DeBoer and a common interest in better quantifying the metabolic syndrome has led to a fruitful collaboration benefiting from his clinical knowledge and my biostatistical expertise. It is a good example of elevating research by allowing investigators with varying backgrounds to co-lead important research studies. Biostatisticians in particular, when given the opportunity, can utilize our quantitative skills to provide real innovation in health research.”

Gurka expressed gratitude to the WVU Research Corporation's Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (PSCoR). 

“The PSCoR award I received last year allowed us to add to our preliminary data and strengthen the R01 proposal that was ultimately funded,” he said.  

In addition to Gurka, other WVU researchers on this grant include School of Public Health faculty members Baqiyyah Conway, Ph.D., Jefferson Frisbee, Ph.D., and George Kelley, D.A., as well as NIOSH researchers Michael Andrew, Ph.D., and Cecil Burchfiel, Ph.D., M.P.H.  Opportunities will exist for student involvement in the years to come.

For more information: Leigh Limerick, Communications Specialist, 304-293-7087
lal: 08-15-14