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Obesity research: background

Obesity and its related diseases place a significant burden on healthcare systems and tackling obesity is a government-wide priority in the UK. As part of joint plans agreed under the Office for Strategic Coordination of Health Research, the National Institute for Health Research takes a strategic lead on obesity research. The MRC’s role is to support the overall obesity research strategy by addressing areas relevant to its remit.

Increased mortality and substantial morbidity are associated with obesity due to its impact on type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, osteoarticular and reproductive disease and certain cancers. It is the single most important risk factor for type 2 diabetes. Obesity and its consequences represent a major unmet need for improved therapies and prevention strategies. Despite this, recent advances mean that this problem is becoming tractable.

A complex socioeconomic issue, obesity is influenced by a number of factors. Of particular importance are those contributing to the ‘obesogenic environment’, including changes in diet and eating habits leading to increased energy intake, and lifestyle factors increasing sedentary behaviour and thus reducing energy expenditure. These factors often vary in nature and effect size between social groups: for example, different age groups or economic/social class. The transition from rural to urban environments occurring in many developing countries provides an excellent example of how broader socioeconomic factors can influence the risk of obesity through the creation of an obesogenic environment. Our obesity priorities focus on the factors most relevant to the our remit, but we acknowledge the importance of research into the wider socioeconomic drivers that is performed by the national framework of funders.

We held a meeting of leading obesity researchers in 2010 to develop a plan for obesity research.

The objectives of the meeting were:

  • To produce a coherent set of priorities for MRC obesity research, taking into account current activities, opportunities, tractability and clinical relevance.
  • Based on this, to agree a realistic plan of action for MRC obesity research, including priorities for investment (and their justification), engaging with and influencing stakeholders, and collaboration with other funders. The plan will act as a vehicle through which our overall strategic plan can be implemented in this area.

Priorities were defined based on disease burden, unmet need, timeliness, value for money/added value, impact on disease and tractability/feasibility. It is recognised that many approaches are valuable to address obesity; our priorities are based on the areas most relevant to the MRC and are not intended to set priorities for other organisations with different remits.

The scientific areas covering obesity and the experimental approaches to tackle the problem