NIH awards $26.4 million to Stanford researchers for physical activity study

The medical school professors were awarded the grants as part of a large-scale National Institutes of Health program to study the biology of how physical activity improves health.

Michael Snyder

Stanford researchers have been awarded two grants totaling $26.4 million as part of the largest program ever funded by the National Institutes of Health to study the biological mechanisms of physical activity.

Michael Snyder, PhD, professor and chair of genetics, and Stephen Montgomery, PhD, assistant professor of pathology and of genetics, were awarded $15.7 million. They will lead a research team using advanced technological tools to identify and characterize the wide range of molecules that form during or after exercise.

“Our grant is to collect genomic, transcriptomic and epigenomic information and learn about how these relate to the effect of exercise,” Snyder said. “We will be determining how exercise affects the body’s biochemistry at a detailed level never analyzed previously.”

Montgomery added, “A lack of physical activity is a major factor in multiple diseases. This program provides an exciting opportunity to learn the molecular mechanisms underlying physical activity, with the goal of enabling new approaches to improving or maintaining individual health.”

Stephen Montgomery

A bioinformatics center

A second grant of $10.7 million was awarded to Euan Ashley, DPhil, MRCP, associate professor of cardiovascular medicine and of genetics, to establish and lead a bioinformatics center for data storage available to all the researchers across the NIH program.

“The role of the bioinformatics center will be data sharing, data integration with other datasets, and novel analytics,” Ashley said.

The NIH program, called Molecular Transducers of Physical Activity in Humans, will award a total of $170 million to researchers across the United States over the next six years to study the molecular changes that occur during and after exercise, with the goal of advancing the understanding of how physical activity improves and preserves health.

“The development of a so-called molecular map of circulating signals produced by physical activity will allow us to discover, at a fundamental level, how physical activity affects our health,” Francis Collins, MD, PhD, director of the NIH, said in a news release issued by the agency. “This knowledge should allow researchers and doctors to develop individually targeted exercise recommendations and better help those who are unable to exercise.”  

Euan Ashley

The program will include seven clinical trial sites across the country and seven chemical analysis sites. Three awards will go to conduct physical activity studies in animal models. The bioinformatics center will disseminate data and tools to the entire research community, and a coordination center will facilitate activities across the consortium, the release said.

“What is so exciting about this program is that there is no more potent therapeutic intervention than exercise,” Ashley said. “Regular physical activity reduces the risk of almost every disease you can think of — heart disease, lung disease, cancer, neurological disease, GI disease, bone disease, back pain, depression. And yet, we have no idea how exercise achieves this magical effect.”

The work that will be funded by the two grants reflects Stanford Medicine’s focus on precision health, the goals of which are to anticipate and prevent disease in the healthy and precisely diagnose and treat disease in the ill.

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