Ottawa announces new funding for research network to help fight growing epidemic that threatens the health of millions of Canadians
BY ANDREW VOWLES
Guelph researchers will play a key role in a new national group intended to help fight a growing epidemic in obesity that threatens the health of millions of Canadians.
The Canadian Obesity Network (CON), one of five new federal Networks of Centres of Excellence, will include about 12 scientists from the departments of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences (HHNS), Food Science, and Family Relations and Applied Nutrition, says Prof. Terry Graham, HHNS chair.
Funding for the new network worth $800,000 over two years was announced late last month by the federal government. The group will bring together researchers, health professionals, industry and policy-makers to study, prevent and reduce the health and economic consequences of excess body weight.
“More than half of the Canadian population is classified as overweight or obese,” says Graham, referring to statistics that show excess body weight affects an estimated 18 million Canadians.
“What people often lose sight of is that obesity is often associated with many other diseases. There are about two million Canadians with type 2 diabetes. Not only are those numbers increasing, but also the age at which people are developing the disease is decreasing.”
People with type 2 diabetes are at greater risk of developing cardiovascular disease and eye and kidney damage. Obesity also increases the risk of developing several kinds of cancer, adds Graham.
The initial funding, announced March 27, will help establish the new network and kick off major research programs involving scientists at 21 universities, more than 10 international institutes in North America and Europe, 15 non-profit organizations and 20 industry partners.
“The Canadian Obesity Network will provide an urgently needed response to this growing epidemic affecting 18 million obese and overweight Canadians and costing the Canadian health-care system in excess of $4.3 billion annually,” says McMaster University researcher Arya Sharma, scientific director of the CON.
Guelph will play a “dominant role” in the network through studies of nutrition, metabolism and obesity interactions, says Graham. “We bring a really multidisciplinary team to the table.”
HHNS professor Arend Bonen, Canada Research Chair in Metabolism and Health, will lead a network team focusing on the role of fat and muscle in obesity. His own studies suggest that hormones and metabolic signals in these tissues in people with excess body weight lead to cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
CON members from three U of G colleges will also draw on long-standing connections with local and campus organizations, from the Guelph Food Technology Centre and the Human Nutraceutical Research Unit to the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.
“The biggest Guelph contribution is that we have recognized and encouraged interactions among agriculture, food and human health,” says Graham. “No other university around is better positioned in all three.”
Far from “curing” obesity, he says, the new network will propose ways to reduce the problem, including health promotion in schools, public dissemination of research results, development of innovative foods and pharmaceuticals, and ideas for the food industry to investigate more healthful products.
He also expects CON researchers will explore the emerging field of nutrigenomics, or understanding how nutrients interact with individual consumers' genes and metabolism. Researchers will probably learn more about how human evolution has made people obesity-prone by selecting for genes that enabled our less sedentary ancestors to store energy more efficiently, he says.
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