By 2030 it is expected that close to 200 million people will suffer from obesity.
As a result, many will also suffer from dyslipidemia, hypertension or insulin intolerance. In turn, this will escalate heart disease, diabetes and cancer – and overload health systems throughout the world. As if these were not enough reasons to study the mechanisms underlying obesity related diseases, it appears that the lipid metabolism insights involved can also be used to alleviate another societal challenge: the provision of novel biofuels.
Jens Nielsen is a Chalmers professor applying mathematical modelling to the study of living cells in search of molecular insight into obesity. To understand why and how some people
develop obesity related diseases, he and his team have employed tools initially developed to study the fungal cells in baker’s yeast.
All cells use metabolic reactions to convert nutrients into the different compounds they need; it’s their nature. Out of the 1,500 chemical reactions used by a yeast cell, approximately 1,000 also occur in human cells. Which explains why studies of lipid metabolism in yeast are highly relevant to studies of lipid metabolism in people. Yeast metabolism is already exploited commercially in the production of ethanol. Although widely used, ethanol is limited by two things: it is corrosive and can only be blended into gasoline up to a certain level.
Nature’s fuel supply
Having developed the necessary mathematical models, Nielsen and his team have identified some of the mechanisms that increase metabolic efficiency in yeast (some of which are key to obesity). What’s more, they’ve understood how a yeast cell can be harnessed to produce biodiesel from lipids. Potentially, these findings could help to replace current (inefficient) biodiesel production methods. A patent for this novel process is under way.
Maths in medicine
Back to the quest for insight into obesity, things become complex as we need to know how changes in metabolism affect the different tissues within the body and the development of disease within the tissues. And not least, how specific foods affect our metabolism. Again, by developing mathematic models for the different tissues – liver, muscle and fat – Nielsen plans to build a bigger picture of how certain compounds can affect our metabolism and various aspects of our health in relationship to obesity related diseases. A further key to progress is an extensive collaboration with Sahlgrenska, the medical faculty at the University of Gothenburg with a first class reputation in metabolic related diseases.
Of mice and men
With the combination of these medical, mathematical and analytical resources, Jens Nielsen and his team are making headway. In collaboration with professor Ann-Sofie Sandberg, a recent study of obese mice demonstrated the benefits of a herring based diet: reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and improved muscle preservation. Furthermore, it appears that such a diet could have a significant impact upon the ageing process.
Interestingly, the diets used in the study mimicked the type of western diet that leads to obesity in people (high calorie, sugar and lipid content). One group of mice ate a herring based diet (rich in unsaturated fatty acids); the other group ate a beef based diet (rich in saturated fatty acids). Despite equal measures of protein, fat, sugar and calories, the health of the two groups differed significantly.
Prevention preferable to cure
While the notion that fatty acids found in fish oil are good for you, this study sheds light on the positive effects of a particular food type on meta¬bolism in liver, muscle and adipose tissues. It also conveys hope that we can limit the development of obesity – protecting our health and preventing disease with the right choice
Professor Jens Nielsen, Systems Biology
tel: +46 31 772 38 04
Professor Ann-Sofie Sandberg, Food Science
tel: +46 31 772 38 26