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How your genes can solve obesity

What roles do diet and genetics play in the development of obesity and diabetes? The answer may be found in a unique Norwegian study of mothers and children.

Professor og barnelege Pål Rasmus Njølstad ved UiB forskar på gener som kan...
Professor og barnelege Pål Rasmus Njølstad ved UiB forskar på gener som kan vera assosierte med overvekt og diabetes.
Øyvind Blom, Haukeland universitetssjukehus.


Obesity in children is a growing problem. This is a fact that paediatrician Pål Rasmus Njølstad is reminded of daily when arriving at work at the Department of Paediatrics at Haukeland University Hospital.

– Norway increasingly emulates the United States. Today, one in four Norwegians is obese, and one in twenty has type 2 diabetes, says Njølstad, who in addition to working as a paediatrician is also professor at the University of Bergen’s (UiB) Department of Clinical Medicine.

High-risk research

It turns out that some of the genes associated with type 2 diabetes are also associated with obesity. Njølstad heads a research project that examines the connection between genetics and obesity and diabetes.

– We hope to contribute to an understanding of this increase in obesity. Food and an active lifestyle play an important part, but it is also dependent on family medical history and ethnicity.

Njølstad recently received 17.6 million Norwegian kroner through a so-called advanced grant from the European Research Council (ERC). These grants are provided to exceptional established research leaders to pursue groundbreaking, high-risk projects that open new directions in their respective research fields.

Norway's unique archives

When looking for genes, the UiB researchers have a powerful tool thanks to the Norwegian Mother and Child Cohort Study (MoBa), in which more than 90,000 pregnant women participated between 1999 and 2008. In the study, both biological samples and survey data were collected as early as week 17 of pregnancy. More than 70,000 budding fathers also participated in the survey.

– Norway’s material is unique. While American studies can be socially selective, studies such as ours are based on a population with a much smaller degree of selection. The surveys are also carefully done, Njølstad says.

Another aspect that contributes to the uniqueness of the Norwegian archives is that they can be crosslinked, which means that the data can be validated against vital records, such as birth records.

In Njølstad’s project approximately 60,000 MoBa samples are reviewed. Extensive genetic analysis of the material will be carried out to look for gene variations that recur in the obese.

Internationally recognised

Even before being awarded the ERC grant, the diabetes group at UiB had distinguished itself. The group was set up in 1997, and in 2001 an article was published in the New England Journal of Medicine on glucokinase deficiency, a particular type of diabetes that affects newborns.

Later the group charted a new diabetes syndrome and published the findings in the journal Nature Genetics. This was the result of full-time research for four of Njølstad’s staff for five years.

The group has also demonstrated that a certain type of childhood diabetes can be treated with tablets rather than insulin, and published the finding in Diabetes and the New England Journal of Medicine. This has changed the everyday lives of thousands of children around the world.

– When you make discoveries such as this, you feel you’re doing a good job as a doctor, as well, Njølstad says with a smile.

Eat less, exercise more

Njølstad hopes that the research project will provide more information about how people become obese, and how to help people early in life.

– We don’t always know if there are health benefits in a lot of the food that is produced today, and what they might be. But what interests us the most working on this project, is the connection between exercise and obesity genes. Hopefully our research can lead to treatment in the future, Njølstad says, before uttering a word of caution.

– So far, we have not been able to stop this epidemic, even though we know that what is needed is more exercise and less food.

In the autumn of 2012, Njølstad will be at Boston’s Broad Institute, which grew out of research environments at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and is one of the world’s leading research environments in genetics, diabetes, and common diseases. Njølstad hopes that his work can be of help to the growing number of people who are diagnosed with diabetes every year.

This article was first printed in UiB's research and education magazine Hubro international edition 2012/2013. Translated from the Norwegian by Sverre Ole Drønen.