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$2.5M Ricks Family Foundation Donation Seeds New Heartland Children’s Nutrition Collaborative

Additional $2.5M Challenge Match to Inspire Other Contributions

How do the bacteria in a child’s gut contribute to illness? Can we prevent or treat childhood diseases by altering what kids eat? How do certain foods interact with children’s cells to damage, alter or strengthen them? And can a highly tailored diet help kids recover more quickly from surgery or other medical treatments?

A $2.5 million donation to Riley Children’s Foundation from the Ricks Family Foundation – along with another $2.5 million challenge match – are the catalyst for a new joint research initiative between Purdue University and Indiana University to answer these questions and more about children’s nutrition. The Heartland Children’s Nutrition Collaborative will combine the strength and expertise of Purdue’s College of Agriculture Department of Food Science and the IU School of Medicine Department of Pediatrics to discover how early-life food intake can shape and influence both short-term and long-term health.

“The idea is to shine a light on the role of nutrition in children’s health,” said Christina Ricks, MD, a pediatric physician who leads the Ricks Family Foundation along with her husband, David A. Ricks. “Optimal nutrition is needed for growth and development, as well as long term overall health and wellbeing. Nutrition certainly impacts many conditions, from anxiety and depression to chronic diseases. This is such an exciting area of investigation that extends from the bench research of the microbiome to the social science of behavior change.”

1:1 Challenge Match to Inspire Other Donations

Beyond seeding the collaborative with a generous donation, the Ricks hope to inspire others to contribute to the critical area of research. Through their foundation, they are offering to match up to $2.5 million in donations from individuals, foundations and corporations to the Heartland Children’s Nutrition Collaborative Fund at Riley Children’s Foundation. Mr. Ricks served on the Riley Children’s Foundation Board of Governors from 2012 through 2022, including five years as chair. Dr. and Mr. Ricks are each graduates of both Purdue and IU.

Importantly, the Purdue College of Agriculture and IU School of Medicine are each co-investing $1.25 million in the collaborative to support recruitment of faculty with expertise related to children’s nutrition. Should the Ricks’ foundation match be fully maximized, the program will have a total startup package of $10 million.

The vision is to provide pilot funding to spur collaboration in children’s nutrition research between the two institutions. Investigators who generate early results will then seek ongoing funding from external sources such as the National Institutes of Health to fuel future growth.

Two Powerhouse Research Institutions

Purdue University’s College of Agriculture is one of the world’s leading colleges of agricultural, food, life, and natural resource sciences. The Indiana University School of Medicine Department of Pediatrics is consistently ranked as one of the nation’s top 10 pediatrics research programs and is recognized for clinical excellence through its partnership with Riley Children’s Health.

The Heartland Children’s Nutrition Collaborative will be co-led by Senay Simsek, PhD, head of Purdue’s College of Agriculture Department of Food Science, and Carmella Evans-Molina, MD, PhD, a professor of pediatrics and director of the Indiana Diabetes Research Center at IU School of Medicine.

Senay Simsek, PhD, head of Purdue’s College of Agriculture Department of Food Science, Senay Simsek, head of Purdue’s College of Agriculture Department of Food Science,

“Children grow rapidly from birth through childhood and adolescence,” Dr. Simsek said. “The food they eat during these formative years has profound ramifications – not just for their immediate health, but for their long-term metabolic, physiological and cognitive health. We are incredibly grateful to the Ricks Family Foundation, for investing in this vision so we can deepen our understanding of how to improve children’s lives through the science of food.”

“This initiative is particularly timely and essential given an alarming rise in pediatric conditions such as obesity, diabetes, and other nutrition-related illnesses,” Dr. Evans-Molina said. “Thanks to the generosity of the Ricks Family Foundation, we have the opportunity to collaborate together in powerful new ways to reverse these trends, and to make Indiana a leader in children’s health.”

The Collaborative adds to the growing momentum of research collaboration between IU School of Medicine and Purdue in Indianapolis.

For example, the universities last year announced the establishment of the Crossroads Pediatric Device Consortium that includes the Department of Pediatrics at IU, the Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering at Purdue, and Cook Biomedical, one of the leading biomedical device companies in the world. That consortium focuses on meeting unmet needs for pediatric patients by accelerating the development, approval and availability of innovative medical devices for children. It is anticipated that the two programs will partner on the development of nutrition-related medical devices for children.

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