The proportion of Swedish children who are overweight or obese has risen from 5% in 1988 to 21% in 2004, with no end to this increase in sight. Fattier foods, lack of exercise and genetic predisposition have been identified as causes of the obesity epidemic. Researchers at Sahlgrenska Academy, University of Gothenburg, are on the trail of an additional cause.
Professor Bäckhed and his team have received a SEK 30.8 million grant from the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation to conduct a project that will study intestinal flora in newborn children. The long-term purpose of the project is to discover new methods of controlling childhood obesity.
A number of widely acclaimed studies by the researchers have shown that obesity is related to the composition of intestinal flora. The team will collaborate with Associate Professor Jovanna Dahlgren at the Göteborg Pediatric Growth Research Center to study the intestinal flora of newborn children in Halmstad. The focus will be on the growth and development of flora during the first year of life and possible links to obesity risks.
“We already know that intestinal flora imbalance contributes to a number of serious conditions in adults, ” Professor Bäckhed says, “including obesity and inflammatory bowel disease. Our hypothesis is that it can also increase the risk of childhood obesity.
“The grant from the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation presents us with unprecedented opportunities. Our long-term goal is that intestinal flora can serve as a biomarker for early detection of childhood obesity risks.”
The researchers will also try to isolate intestinal bacteria from non-obese children as a means of determining whether these bacteria can be used to develop new prevention strategies.
“Children with obesity are very likely to be overweight as adults,” Professor Bäckhed says, “which exposes them to greater risks of developing diabetes and cardiovascular disease. With that in mind, childhood obesity is a high priority social and public health issue.”
The Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation has designed a program of 25 research projects that have the potential to produce scientific breakthroughs. The purpose of the program is to provide leading Swedish researchers with the means to take on complex and stubborn problems of various types. Grants totaling SEK 700 million are available for the projects.
FACTS ABOUT INTESTINAL BACTERIA
Ten times as many bacteria colonize the body as the total number of cells it contains. Most of the bacteria live in the intestines, where they facilitate digestion, produce vitamins and strengthen the immune system.
FACTS ABOUT THE KNUT AND ALICE WALLENBERG FOUNDATION
The Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation is the largest source of private research grants in Sweden. The foundation supports key national infrastructure initiatives and projects with high scientific potential while offering individual assistance to leading researchers in the fields of science, technology and medicine. The foundation has awarded SEK 4.8 billion to Swedish researchers and their projects over the past five years.