Director of the Vermont Center on Behavior and Health and vice-chair of Psychiatry, Professor Stephen Higgins is leading a slate of research projects related to regulating unhealthy behavior.

The Vermont Center on Behavior and Health at the University of Vermont has received $31.3 million in grant renewals to fund studies on unhealthy behavior.

The research, led by VCBH director and professor of psychiatry Stephen Higgins, includes $11.7 million in renewal funding for the Center of Biomedical Research Excellence award from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, and $19.6 million from the National Institute on Drug Abuse and U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the Tobacco Center of Regulatory Science program. Both programs were first funded in 2013.

The goal of the studies, according to Higgins, is to better understand how to reduce cigarette smoking, opioid abuse, obesity and other addictions, and increase healthier choices around exercise, food, taking medications as prescribed and following other medically recommended activities such as colonoscopies and cardiac rehabilitation.

“These routine lifestyle choices we make daily have a huge effect on the likelihood of developing chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke, COPD, osteoarthritis and dying prematurely. They are at the core of why U.S. population health is so much poorer than other developed countries despite spending much more on health care. We can do better,” Higgins said.

The UVM COBRE team is working with Brown University, the University of Kentucky School of Medicine, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Laureate Institute for Brain Research and Oviedo University in Spain, among others, in addition to UVM internal advisors.

“My team at Brown University has been collaborating with Steve’s center on projects that examine how smokers with depression and anxiety disorders respond to very low nicotine content cigarettes,” said Jennifer Tidey, professor of behavioral and social sciences at Brown University’s School of Public Health. “Over the past five years we have made important discoveries that are directly relevant to the FDA’s interest in reducing the nicotine content of cigarettes in order to reduce tobacco-related deaths in the U.S. With this new funding we are looking forward to continuing this collaboration by investigating whether access to e-cigarettes influences how smokers with depression and anxiety disorders respond to very low nicotine content cigarettes.”

The projects focus on examining mechanisms underpinning vulnerability to tobacco and other risk behaviors, treatment interventions to reduce them and improve health outcomes, and regulatory science.

“These funds will leverage UVM’s existing interdisciplinary strengths to target major public health concerns that adversely impact Vermont and our nation, in addition to supporting the training of our next generation of scientists to take on the challenges of smoking and other addictive behaviors,” said Gordon Jensen, senior associate dean at UVM’s Larner College of Medicine.

The National Institute of General Medical Sciences-supported study will continue its focus on increasing the understanding of the mechanisms underpinning vulnerability to unhealthy behavior patterns and developing effective behavior-change interventions, with the end goal of establishing a productive, standalone center of research excellence in biomedical research.

The Center of Biomedical Research Excellence funds support numerous activities around the general topic of how behavior and lifestyle choices impact risk for chronic disease and premature death.

In Phase II of the COBRE, five new research projects will investigate such issues as breast cancer incidence in high-risk women; improving linkage to care after ocular tele-health screening in diabetic adults; smartphone-based financial incentives to promote smoking cessation in pregnant women; the effects of stress on capillary-to-arteriole communication in the brain; and improving smoking cessation in socioeconomically disadvantaged young adults.

The main research supported by the TCORS award are three multi-site clinical trials (UVM, Brown University, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine) that will examine the potential impact of a new national policy being considered by the FDA that would reduce the nicotine content of cigarettes to minimally addictive levels.

The $19.6 million NIH/FDA-supported grant will continue to focus on research relating to a major policy currently under consideration by the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products, reducing the nicotine content of cigarettes to fall below the addiction threshold. Specifically, UVM’s Tobacco Center of Regulatory Science study will be examining how such a policy might impact populations that are highly vulnerable to tobacco addiction.

“For the FDA to effectively execute its tobacco regulatory responsibilities, it must have sound scientific evidence on how new policies impact vulnerable populations, possible adverse impacts, and how they will intersect with a rapidly changing tobacco marketplace,” Higgins said. The $31.3 million received this year follows $32 million granted five years ago. “I have not counted the number of jobs we have created directly for new faculty, research assistants and indirectly, grant administrators, but it’s a great many. This is the second time that we have brought in $32 million dollars in new funding to UVM on a single day in the past five years.”

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