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Sunday, June 20, 2021

Academics & Research

UH professor receives NIH grant for pharmaceutical research


Hua Chen has received a grant from the National Institute of Health to research how the diabetes drug Metformin could impact weight gain in children taking certain psychiatric medications. | Courtesy of Hua Chen

Hua Chen, a professor in the College of Pharmacy’s department of Pharmaceutical Health Outcomes and Policy, is launching a two-year research study to explore whether the diabetes drug Metformin can be used to combat the weight gain caused by mental health medications in children and teenagers. 

Chen received a $455,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to fund her research. She plans to use a national electronic medical record database to screen for those between the ages of six and nineteen who were given Metformin towards the beginning stages of their treatment with atypical/second generation antipsychotic drugs.

Chen’s earlier exploration of medication safety in children resulted in her finding that SGA drugs given to children can result in weight gain up to 120 pounds in a year. Since these medications are administered to individuals with mental illnesses like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, persistence in taking the medication when needed is critical.

“Patients often discontinue medications due to excessive weight change, which could lead to serious consequences such as self-harm, suicide and hospitalizations due to other mental health crisis,” Chen said.

Psychiatric patients taking SGA drugs could gain a significant amount of weight because these medications can calm them down to the point where their level of physical activity considerably decreases, Chen said.

The drugs also result in cravings for high-carbohydrate foods, which could result in weight gain when consumed in excess of the number of calories needed for weight maintenance.

“The eating habit may continue even after the discontinuation of medications,” Chen said. “Losing weight takes excess effort, which is not easy even among individuals without mental illness.”

Chen’s lab previously found that children and adolescents gain the most weight during the first three months of taking SGA, but only lose one-fourth of it after they choose to stop consuming the drugs. This is why she believes that early treatment is key.

Although previous studies have explored how Metformin can help adults manage their weight while taking SGA drugs, few have been conducted for children and adolescents, leading to more limited data.

The department of Pharmaceutical Health Outcomes and Policy has studied medication safety for the past decade, including another of Chen’s projects that investigates the safety profile of opioid pain medications in children.

Department members also conduct the Houston Medication Safety Symposium in the Texas Medical Center each year to unite practitioners and researchers in an effort to make medication practices safer.

“Dr. Chen’s research will help to improve the quality of pharmaceutical care in pediatrics,” said Dr. Rajender Aparasu, the department chair. “(It) addresses the significant issue of managing medication-related adverse events in children and adolescents.”

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