Expert in Biostatistics, Metabolic Syndrome Joins HOP Faculty

When both adult and pediatric patients come to their checkups with a certain nexus of problems – obesity, high blood pressure, high glucose levels, low “good” cholesterol, and high triglycerides – most doctors know they are on the road for increased risk of cardiovascular disease. That road, though, has a name: metabolic syndrome.

Approximately one in three American adults and an increasing number of children have the syndrome, and Matthew Gurka, Ph.D., who recently joined the Department of Health Outcomes & Policy as part of UF Preeminence, is seeking to calibrate a tool that would calculate the severity of a person’s metabolic syndrome. The calculator, which was already used in clinical care at West Virginia University, Gurka’s previous institution, aims to help doctors track whether patients’ scores are improving or declining. The calculator’s ultimate goal is to help prevent people from developing cardiovascular disease, which can lead to stroke, heart attack and more.

“More and more people are being diagnosed with the metabolic syndrome, and in general it has been found to be a risk factor for Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease,” said Gurka, who has also conducted research on the metabolic syndrome in children and will serve as the new associate director of the Institute for Child Health Policy. “However, we still do not have an in-depth understanding of this syndrome, including why it affects individuals of different races or ethnicities differently, and whether it is, in fact, a truly better predictor of future disease than the individual components that make up the syndrome.”

As part of an R01 grant with Mark DeBoer, M.D., associate professor of pediatrics at University of Virginia’s School of Medicine, Gurka will lead a team, including Thomas Pearson, M.D., MPH, Ph.D., UF Health executive vice president for research and education and renowned cardiovascular epidemiologist, and Yi Guo, Ph.D., research assistant professor in the Department of Health Outcomes & Policy. This research team will examine several existing data sets, including the Jackson Heart Study and the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) Study, to measure the predictive power of the severity score and help determine whether people with higher scores are more likely to develop cardiovascular disease as well as variations in these developments across ethnicities. In addition, Gurka hopes the study will shed more light on the debates surrounding the metabolic syndrome and its utility in predicting future disease.

“As the number of individuals with chronic conditions, including heart disease and obesity, in America continues to grow, Dr. Gurka brings crucial expertise in statistical design and lifespan health research to the Department of Health Outcomes & Policy.  His expertise will strengthen our ability to examine childhood antecedents that contribute to the development of chronic conditions in adulthood,” said Betsy Shenkman, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Health Outcomes & Policy and director of the Institute for Child Health Policy. “Moreover, Dr. Gurka’s long-term interests in childhood risk factors, including those occurring in the critical early childhood period, make him a great fit for the Institute for Child Health Policy, which is looking to expand its multidisciplinary collaborations related to lifespan research.”

Previously serving as the founding chair of the Department of Biostatistics at West Virginia University and the director of the Clinical Research Design, Epidemiology, and Biostatistics Core of the West Virginia CTSI, Gurka also brings administrative experience and a commitment to fostering collaboration among interdisciplinary teams to tackle complex health problems.

“I am excited to collaborate with the talented clinicians, researchers, and others at the University of Florida as well as community partners across the state who are committed to children’s health,” said Dr. Gurka. “As a biostatistician that has been part of many research groups, and having led a few of my own, I can appreciate the effort and talent needed to build a successful collaborative team. I have only been here a few months but I already know there are tremendous opportunities and I look forward to contributing in any way I can to the amazing work already being done across UF.”

In particular, Dr. Gurka, in his role with the Institute for Child Health Policy and as an Early Childhood Preeminence Hire, will work closely with the Anita Zucker Center for Excellence in Early Childhood Studies to continue to build and foster collaborations across UF and the state of Florida targeting children’s health and development.

“Given his expertise in biostatistics and clinical research designs, Dr. Gurka will contribute importantly to early childhood study activity at UF,” said Anita Zucker Center Director Patricia Snyder, Ph.D. “Through his involvement with our center and his position in the Institute for Child Health Policy, we look forward to strengthening our collaborations on interdisciplinary research, policy, and practice issues related to young children’s health, development, and behavior.”