Professor Cecilia Lindgren’s research at the Big Data Institute (BDI), University of Oxford, seeks to advance understanding of the underlying mechanisms involved in obesity. By applying a range of genetic approaches, her team looks to identify genetic variants influencing fat distribution around the body, and to investigate the biological pathways involved.
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Professor Lindgren recently led one of the largest ever studies to explore the influence of rare, low frequency genetic variants on body-fat distribution. It was found that although these variants are rare in the population, their effects on individuals are usually large.
“My science wouldn’t happen without collaboration – I work with many organisations, institutes and consortia, accessing, linking up and analysing different data types. This is why I am so excited about HDR UK and what we stand for – we are connecting the right people and ensuring we stay at the forefront of scientific research,” says Professor Lindgren.
The obesity epidemic
According to the World Health Organisation, 62% of adults in the UK are classified as overweight with 28% of adults clinically obese. Obesity often starts in early life, doesn’t have a specific treatment and can lead to a range of illnesses including heart disease, diabetes, a range of cancers and fertility issues. Professor Lindgren’s career started in diabetes research. She became interested in obesity as a key co-morbidity, which led her to join international efforts to unravel the underlying mechanisms of obesity.
“There is a huge stigma around obesity. Whilst people connect obesity with over-indulging, not exercising and a lack of willpower, there is strong evidence that a significant proportion of the disease is explained by genetic predisposition,” says Professor Lindgren.
Genetics and obesity
Professor Lindgren studies the genetic component of obesity and how different people carry different risks. In particular, a recent study looked at fat distribution and where in the body people aggregate fat. Obese men traditionally have an ‘apple shape’ whilst women can develop a ‘pear shape’. The accumulation of fat in specific areas proves to be connected to risk of cardiovascular disease or diabetes. Her research looked at specific genetic variants that determine where the fat is stored and therefore its links to health. As fat distribution is genetically regulated (and not directly related to diet), if you have a specific genetic predisposition to lay down fat in dangerous areas, you could possibly require early therapeutic intervention to help prevent or manage this.
Access to health data
Professor Lindgren’s work is dependent on UK Biobank where she analyses large scale patient data and processes it with high-performance computing infrastructure at the BDI, part-funded by HDR UK.
Impact of the research
Professor Lindgren’s research is providing additional understanding of the causes of obesity and fat distribution. Her overall aim is to reduce the stigma attached to obesity and to accelerate therapeutic development. She is collaborating with many colleagues who are tackling related issues. She works to influence government public health policy as well as influencing the Medtech industry, so that new therapeutic targets might be exploited to help people prevent or manage their conditions.
Science abstract: Obesity and its consequences are major and growing challenges for health care worldwide. Many common genetic variants have been identified, which influence the severity of and predisposition to obesity at the population level: these findings should lead to improved understanding of the mechanisms involved in the regulation of overall energy balance. However, not all obese individuals are equally vulnerable to diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other adverse consequences of obesity and it has long been appreciated that the distribution of fat (particularly the degree of visceral fat) is an additional and independent determinant of individual risk of metabolic and cardiovascular disease.