Aberdeen Scientists Fight the Flab

Aberdeen Scientists Fight the Flab

Combating the increasing tide of obesity in the UK is the challenge facing a multi-disciplinary group of scientists from throughout Aberdeen.

Colleagues from the University of Aberdeen, Rowett Research Institute and Grampian University Hospitals NHS Trust have formed ACERO, the Aberdeen Centre for Energy Regulation and Obesity. ACERO involves some 50 scientists and support staff, all working on obesity and related phenomena.

Recent studies have shown that the prevalence of obesity is increasing enormously in the UK, with more than 40% of the UK population currently overweight or obese. Unless serious action is taken now, the UK will find itself in the same situation as the USA where more than half the adult population is overweight. This has resulted in an enormous strain on the US health service where over $99 billion is spent annually on health problems directly linked to the disease.

John Speakman, Professor of Zoology at the University of Aberdeen and founder Chairman of ACERO said: “Peoples’ attitudes to obesity are changing as we find out much more about its underlying causes.

“It is clear that the failure of some people to regulate their body weight is not just a matter of people overeating or being lazy. It is also a problem with their physiology which might have many causes. This new group of scientists collaborating across institutional boundaries is set to make a significant impact on our understanding of this problem, leading to breakthroughs which will aid in its treatment.”

Obesity is associated with increases in Type II diabetes, hypertension, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease and other disorders. As a result, it has considerable public health significance as well as economic repercussions. In 1997, the World Health Organization officially declared the obesity epidemic to be one of the most serious health problems facing mankind.

Current ACERO Chairman, Professor Paul Trayhurn of the Rowett Research Institute, added: “Obesity is a problem of energy imbalance which appears to have a combination of cultural, environmental and genetic causes.

“There has been a long standing interest in the Aberdeen area in the study of energy regulation and energy balance at many different levels of study, from molecular and neurophysiological to motivational investigations of food choice in man.

“ACERO is an excellent example of the strength in depth of life sciences expertise based in Aberdeen. This depth and range of excellence is one of the reasons why Aberdeen was successful in its bid to host the Scottish arm of the Food Standards Agency.”

Members of the ACERO team have already been successful in attracting grant support. One of the main driving forces behind ACERO’s formation, Professor Morgan, Director of the Rowett Research Institute, explained: “My group at the Rowett, together with Professor Speakman’s group at the University, has already attracted a grant of £176,000 from the Biotechnology and Biological Services Research Council to study body weight in seasonal animals.

“It is this ability to bring together complementary expertise which will allow ACERO to move our knowledge about obesity and its causes forward.”

Professor Speakman added: “Many small animals change body fatness in response to day length changes. If we can find out why this happens, then we might be able to evaluate the sorts of physiological problems that might underpin difficulties which obese people have in regulating their body weight.

“One popular idea is the “thrifty genotype” hypothesis which suggests the people who are prone to obesity have been favoured by natural selection in the past because they are efficient in storing fat. It is only when faced with a western diet high in fat that the “thrifty genes” start to cause problems because they are too efficient and lead to massive increases in body weight.

“But what are the thrifty genes and what are the efficiencies they produce? By looking at a wild animal that is presumably under the same pressures which produced the “thrifty genes” in human, we can start to unlock the nature of the efficiencies they produce.”

A second grant to the value of £400,000 has been awarded to Dr Iain Broom, Consultant in Clinical Biochemistry and Metabolic Medicine, by the international pharmaceutical company, Roche. Running for 5 years, the grant is part of a national scheme involving six centres around the UK.

Dr Broom explained: “We intend to develop both a primary care base for obesity treatment and clinical care pathways for treatment.

“The work will be based around secondary care centres of excellence. We will develop a “hub and spoke” system of care, monitoring the effects on practice prevalence of obesity; prevalence of related diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, cardiac failure; as well as drug usage for treatment of these conditions.”

When the project begins in Aberdeen in February 2000, Dr. Broom and his team will provide specialist input and training to 10 selected practices, comparing results which another 10 practices not receiving this additional support. The practices involved are from across the Grampian and Highland regions will local project boards will be sent up to manage the project. This will include GPs and practice nurses.

The other 5 UK centres are in Glasgow, Leeds, Luton, Bedford and Birmingham.

Photocall: Obesity Clinic (part of the Diabetes Clinic), Woolmanhill at 1.45pm on Wednesday 19 January [entry opposite the HM Theatre rear carpark]. Patients at the Clinic will be available for interview. Please use the Denburn Carpark.

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