Uppsala Health Summit

Research studies to curb childhood obesity


Overweight and obesity have increased significantly among children in the last 20 years. Peter Bergsten, Professor of Medical Cell Biology at Uppsala University, is leading an EU initiative that will find new methods to not only treat, but also prevent childhood obesity.

As many as one in five children in Sweden have major weight problems, which lead to complications such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease already at a young age. The EU project “BetaJUDO” examines what happens in children at the cellular level. “It’s not just about how many calories we eat. A wide variety of conditions determine the result of the calorie equation in an individual, whether it is positive or negative,” says Peter Bergsten.

Photo:MattonResearchers have studied how fatty acids in the blood vary among children with obesity and overweight compared with normal-weight children. “High levels of fatty acids may be a contributing factor to certain people developing obesity already at a young age. Some of the children we meet at Uppsala University Children’s Hospital are as young as three years old.”

An important part of the work in “BetaJUDO” is to find new ways to treat children. By testing a certain pharmaceutical principle on cells in the laboratory, researchers have identified a medication that causes insulin-producing beta cells to function normally again.

“The medication is currently being tested by 44 obese children in Uppsala and Salzburg while research is being conducted on the cells in the laboratory,” says Peter Bergsten. “The study will conclude in September and the results will  then be analysed.”

One basis for this work has been a close collaboration with pediatrician Anders Forslund in particular at Uppsala University Children’s Hospital. The researchers are also studying what happens at the beginning of life, while the child is in utero. Already there, the environment can be more or less healthy for the growing fetus. More knowledge will make early interventions possible.

The rise in obesity has involved decision-makers in Sweden, at the European level and also in WHO. “WHO published a report in February with a strategy to end childhood obesity. It reaffirms that it is our obligation as adults to provide children with an environment that does not make them sick,” says Peter Bergsten.

An international summit, Uppsala Health Summit, will be held in Uppsala this fall on childhood obesity. Peter Bergsten sees it as an opportunity to gather the entire breadth of players who can help impact the health situation of children. “This is a complex field and if Uppsala Health Summit can make some progress, then that’s outstanding. A lot of players will need to reach consensus. The goal is for us to provide children with an environment that gives them opportunities to live a healthy life.”

Annica Hulth