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CU Anschutz to play key role in NIH research program

Focus on molecular changes during physical activity


Molecular Transducers of Physical Activity
​By Wendy S. Meyer

Everyone knows that exercise is good for us. But we don’t precisely know why. What happens to our bodies on the molecular level when we exercise? Leaders at the National Institutes of Health aim to discover, in a fundamental manner, how physical activity affects our health through a national, multi-site research program called the Molecular Transducers of Physical Activity Consortium (or MoTrPAC – pronounced "motor-pack"). Professor Wendy Kohrt, PhD, will lead the research at CU Anschutz, which was chosen to be one of six adult clinical centers for the trial across the country.

“I think this award is a real ‘feather in our cap’ for the institution,” says Professor Kohrt, associate director of the CCTSI and the Nancy Anschutz Chair in Women’s Health Research. “There were 37 applications for adult sites and only six were selected.” 

She says CU Anschutz was particularly well positioned due to our strong nucleus of exercise and nutrition research. “We have a national reputation in this area to begin with,” Kohrt says.

A goal of the program is to develop a so-called molecular map of tissue-specific and circulating signals produced by physical activity. This knowledge should allow researchers and doctors to develop individually targeted exercise recommendations for specific diseases and conditions and better help those who are uncertain whether exercise may be as therapeutic as a medication.

Much of the research at CU Anschutz will take place in a large exercise training facility that looks like a state-of-the-art gym in the Leprino building. “It’s not a trivial thing to have a 3,000 square foot exercise training facility with clinical facilities close by,” Kohrt continues. “People around the country are jealous of our facilities.”

CU Anschutz will recruit 450 individuals to participate in the study. Nationwide, there will be about 3,000 participating. Leaders of the study are still developing the protocol, and recruitment will begin in mid-2018. 

The scale of MoTrPAC is impressive in terms of the number of participants to be enrolled, and also wide ranging across the types of science involved. In addition to the six clinical trial sites, MoTrPAC will include: 
  • seven chemical analysis sites (“omics” sites) 
  • three awards to conduct physical activity studies in animal models
  • a bioinformatics center to disseminate data and tools to the entire research community
  • and a coordination center to harmonize activities across the Consortium.

The program will store data in a user-friendly public resource that any researcher can access to investigate the molecular mechanisms through which physical activity can improve or preserve health. MoTrPAC is funded through the Common Fund of the NIH. Common Fund programs are designed to pursue major opportunities and gaps in biomedical research that no single NIH institute could tackle alone, but that the agency as a whole can address to make the biggest impact possible on the progress of medical research. 

“This will be a discovery project that will catalyze future research to establish the evidence base for the health benefits for activity and exercise,” Kohrt says. “I like to think of it as a first step into ‘precision exercise medicine.’”

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