Researchers Join Forces to Tackle Appalachian Health Problems

LEXINGTON, Ky. (April 29, 2011) — Researchers from the University of Kentucky have joined forces with seven regional academic centers and community organizations to work toward changing health disparities in Appalachia through the creation of the Appalachian Translational Research Network (ATRN).


[IMAGE1]“We are dedicated to seeing this region escape from being one of the sickest parts of America,” said Dr. Phillip Kern, director of the UK Center for Clinical and Translational Science and Barnstable Brown Diabetes and Obesity Center. “We also believe that what we learn here could be applied to other underserved or rural communities in the U.S. So it’s much bigger than helping people in Appalachia. We’re looking for solutions that could impact everyone, everywhere.”


Appalachia has some of the nation's highest rates of life-limiting chronic diseases, including heart disease, cancer and diabetes. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, residents of many Appalachian counties are three times more likely to die from diabetes-related causes than someone living in other counties in the same state, or in most other parts of the United States.


“The causes of health issues in this region are multifactoral, such as poverty, education and access to care,” said Dr. Kelly Kelleher, director of the Community Engagement Program at The Ohio State University Center for Clinical and Translational Science (OSU-CCTS), one of the ATRN member organizations. “A collaborative approach that pairs experts from many different specialties with organizations already working within the Appalachian community will help us reach better solutions faster.”

Recently, health experts and representatives from federal, state and local organizations met at the first annual Appalachian Health Summit to discuss the obesity epidemic, promising research and possible ways to tackle the region’s many health issues. The new network will be looking at these issues through a translational science lens, a perspective that uses collaborations to help accelerate the process that lab research goes through to become real-world health solutions.

The Appalachian region is a 205,000-square-mile area that spans from southern New York to northern Mississippi. It includes 54 Kentucky counties, all of West Virginia and parts of 11 other states, with an estimated population of 24.8 million. States that include significant portions of Appalachia consistently demonstrate high rankings for many chronic illnesses and diseases, with Kentucky and West Virginia having some of the worst rankings in the country in cancer, smoking, obesity and diabetes.

Traditionally, rural communities pose geographic challenges that make it difficult to conduct outreach and research. Further, groups working in those communities tend to have limited sharing of resources or information, making effective long-term improvements elusive, something ATRN experts are confident they can change.

While the Health Summit focused on obesity, it also featured many ongoing research projects addressing health issues related to and complicated by obesity. Many of these ongoing studies have been supported by funding from the National Institutes of Health and/or the Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSA) including:

  • Dr. Brady Reynolds, assistant professor of pediatrics at The Ohio State University and principal investigator at The Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, conducts ongoing research in the Appalachian tri-state region of Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia to evaluate Web-based smoking cessation programs (which can be completed from home) with adolescent smokers. Pilot work also has begun to implement and evaluate a home-based smoking cessation program for pregnant smokers in Appalachian Ohio and Kentucky.
  • Dr. Mark Dignan, principal investigator on an NIH-funded U54 Appalachia Community Cancer Network (ACCN) based at UK, working in tandem with community partners in Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia and Pennsylvania, provided “lessons learned” at the Summit from his many years of community-based participatory research in the region. The current ACCN project involves an intervention to address obesity as a preventative to cancer delivered via participating church communities.
  • With funding from the CDC and Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), Dr. Richard Crespo of Marshall University has established 66 Diabetes Community Collaboratives in nine Appalachian states since 2001, with almost 1,000 community leaders now trained to deliver courses in diabetes self-management at the community level.  During the Summit, Dr. Crespo conferred with Dr. Kevin Pearce, PI of an NIH-funded Kentucky Diabetes and Obesity Collaboratives project based at UK, on how best to interface these community groups with primary care provider collaboratives in the region.

The ATRN also has several upcoming projects, including jointly-funded pilot research studies, development of new collaborations in the region, joint-mentoring opportunities and community-based participatory research and Practice-Based Research Network programs.

About the Appalachian Translational Research Network (ATRN)

The ATRN is dedicated to enhancing research collaborations and seeking new avenues to address the significant health challenges and disparities in Appalachia. Members of the collaborative include the University of Kentucky, The Ohio State University, the University of Cincinnati, Marshall University, Morehead State University, Pikeville College and the Appalachian Regional Commission.

About the University of Kentucky Center for Clinical and Translational Science

Established in 2006, the UK CCTS is a cross-cutting initiative designed to unify scientists, clinicians, and healthcare professionals across all six of UK’s health-related colleges (Dentistry, Health Sciences, Medicine, Nursing, Pharmacy, and Public Health), other UK colleges and centers, UK HealthCare, and UK community and rural outreach networks.  External partners include OSU, University of Cincinnati, Marshall University, Morehead State University, and Pikeville College School of Osteopathic Medicine.  Major goals are to create an “academic home” for the discipline of clinical and translational science; to grow clinical and translational science research teams, emphasizing robust collaborations between basic and clinical scientists to facilitate research translation; and to enhance outreach pathways to confront chronic health issues in rural Appalachia.  For more information, visit or contact: Elodie Elayi at or (859) 323-7939.

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