Newswise — HOUSTON – (March 2, 2017) – The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) has awarded a three-year, $2.4 million grant to The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) to create the Healthy Cities Research Hub: Exploring Drivers of Diabetes and Other Chronic Diseases.

The virtual research hub will focus on the social and environmental conditions that impact health in urban settings throughout North America, facilitating knowledge exchange and evaluating community-based interventions aimed at improving public health in cities.

The grant is awarded at a time when the Type 2 diabetes epidemic is threatening to overwhelm health systems. As urban populations increase, aspects of city lifestyles such as long commutes and time pressure are increasing people’s vulnerability to non-communicable diseases such as Type 2 diabetes. According to the International Diabetes Federation, 415 million people across the world have diabetes, two-thirds of whom are living in urban areas.

The effort represents a unique collaboration with Novo Nordisk, a global health care company, through its Cities Changing Diabetes program, which was developed in partnership with University College London and the Steno Diabetes Center to understand the social and cultural factors behind vulnerability to diabetes in urban settings and reduce its severity in cities. Cities Changing Diabetes engages a range of local partners including diabetes and health organizations, city governments, academic institutions, city experts and civil society organizations. Eight cities across the world are part of the program.

The Healthy Cities Research Hub will work in three North American cities that currently have Cities Changing Diabetes programs in place: Houston, Mexico City and Vancouver. The research hub, funded by RWJF, will focus on extracting and translating the findings from these community-led efforts and sharing the results to help other cities put them into action. This includes developing a framework that evaluates social and cultural factors of health in urban settings, driving action-oriented research, developing activities between researchers and local stakeholders to convert research into new activities and producing toolkits and good practices to inspire other cities.

“This is an opportunity to extend the community-based work of the Cities Changing Diabetes initiative through new tools for evaluation and dissemination so that the results proven here can help other cities,” said Stephen Linder, Ph.D., lead researcher of the project and director of the Institute for Health Policy at UTHealth School of Public Health.

Linder has served as the lead researcher for Cities Changing Diabetes in Houston since the program began locally in 2014. As part of the new grant, he will also work with Cities Changing Diabetes lead researchers in Mexico City and Vancouver to foster collaboration and the exchange of knowledge, experience and insight across the three cities.

“We’re excited to draw out specific lessons from Cities Changing Diabetes’ global work to inform our efforts to transform United States cities into places that enable everyone in our diverse society to lead healthier lives now and for generations to come,” said Alonzo Plough, Ph.D., vice president of Research-Evaluation-Learning and chief science officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

“When we initiated Cities Changing Diabetes, our goal was to join forces with cities and community stakeholders to understand and address the urban diabetes challenge — globally and locally,” said Niels Lund, vice president of Health Advocacy at Novo Nordisk. “This collaboration with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and UTHealth is an important step forward in this effort and we are proud and honored to be part of it.”

The grant will also allow researchers to further develop Houston’s adaptation of the Cities Changing Diabetes model, which could serve as a blueprint to inspire future cities and communities involved in the program.

Co-investigators from UTHealth School of Public Health include Rebecca Wells, Ph.D., Dritana Marko, M.D., Jessica Tullar, Ph.D., and Ellen Breckenridge, Ph.D., J.D.