According to the World Health Organization, around 650 million people suffer from obesity worldwide and over four million die each year from obesity-related causes. This is a problem that starts at an increasingly young age. The Gasol Foundation 2022 PASOS report states that 21.6% of children are obese and 11.8% are overweight in Spain. Today in Madrid, the Center for Biomedical Research Network (CIBER) presented a European project, called EprObes, with €10 million in funding. Over the next five years, the initiative will study obesity and overweight to prevent them in the early stages of life. To that end, the participating researchers will look for biomarkers, risk factors, prognosis and intervention at young ages.
One of the project’s most innovative aspects is the use of artificial intelligence (AI). The researchers rely on it for data analysis and will use machine learning algorithms to design tools that support physicians, healthcare professionals and patients in preventing and treating overweight and obesity. Álex Bravo, a researcher specializing in machine learning, says that one of the most important elements is that AI will allow them to know a patient’s trajectory, “to know which way he or she is going.” The team hopes to be able to develop an application that recommends a series of actions for each person in real time based on their data to, for example, increase their level of physical activity or eat more fruit.
Manuel Tena-Sempere, of the University of Cordoba (Spain) and the project coordinator and principal investigator of CIBEROBN (the CIBER area of Physiopathology of Obesity and Nutrition), notes the importance of developing effective prevention strategies, especially in early stages, to avoid the metabolic complications being overweight causes. “So far, treatments for the most common forms of obesity have limited efficacy,” he laments.
To offer personalized treatment of obesity and its comorbidities, the project will investigate risk and protective factors and mechanisms of excessive weight gain in periods such as pregnancy, early childhood development and adolescence. Some determinants of obesity are environmental impact, family conditions, maternal metabolic status, fetal growth and epigenetics.
Tena-Sempere observes that, although the factors that influence pregnancy can be a determining risk for the child’s subsequent development, the mother’s obesity before giving birth has not been studied in such detail until now. “One of the work teams seeks to specifically analyze that aspect…not only in terms of what happens, but also which molecular mechanisms cause it,” he explains.
The initiative is also distinguished by the fact that it will investigate differences between sexes to better understand how hormones, metabolism, gender roles, different social contexts and other factors affect obesity and the pathologies it causes. The University of Cordoba physiologist explains that, from an early age, sex differences determine many of the biological processes that can lead to a different predisposition to developing obesity.
The project will study the impact of psychological and socioeconomic factors, especially mental health and eating disorders (ED). Fernando Fernández-Aranda, the director of the CIBEROBN group, notes that these disorders can appear in adolescence and have an impact on obesity later in life or vice versa: early obesity can lead to developing an ED in adolescence. “Detecting these associated factors is one of this project’s objectives,” he says.
To address all aspects of obesity, the scientists have included cohorts of patients at different stages of development. In addition to mental health, the initiative will take factors like individual behavior and lifestyle into account, and it will include intervention and prevention studies that focus on diet, exercise and personal environment.
EprObes brings together scientists from Germany, France, Denmark, Turkey, Poland, Belgium and Estonia. In Spain, institutions such as the University of Cordoba, the Fundació Institut de Investigació Biomédica (Biomedical Research Institute Foundation), the Insituto Maimónides de Investigación Biomédica de Córdoba (Maimonides Institute of Biomedical Research of Cordoba), the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (Spanish National Research Council) and the University of Valencia, as well as 18 international organizations, are participating.
The project aims to tackle obesity through prevention, which is a “more effective” approach, says María Puy, the scientific director of CIBEROBN. All of this will translate into a better quality of life for obese people, as well as a reduction in the social and healthcare costs it generates, says Puy. The scientist considers it “a success” that mental health has been included in the framework of this research, and she emphasizes the need to allocate more funds to this area.
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