Can home tests and mushrooms prevent obesity?
5 September 2023
Is it possible to predict who will have unhealthy obesity and thus prevent diseases? Researchers at Uppsala University are intending to examine that question as part of a major EU project. They will also investigate whether mushrooms and spices can help with weight loss generally.
Reducing the risk of obesity could also reduce the risk of a range of secondary diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer. For that reason, a major EU project was launched to prevent obesity back in the spring. Researchers at Uppsala University are responsible for one of the largest subprojects, which will develop a measuring instrument that can be used to identify people who are at risk of becoming dangerously overweight before it happens.
“The overall aim is to find ways to identify people who are at high risk of obesity and its associated diseases. It’s therefore not about the cosmetic angle, but about health,” explains Jan Eriksson, Senior Physician and Professor of Clinical Diabetes Research, who is in charge of Uppsala’s part of the project.
At the Rudbeck lab, the research team is looking for markers in blood and tissue that could be linked to the risk of future obesity and its associated diseases. The hope is to find hormones, fat tissue molecules or genes that play a role in a person’s weight later in life.
More comprehensive than previous studies
Obesity is also linked to a range of socio-economic factors such as income and educational level. The idea is for researchers to identify risks that can also be linked to these factors.
“This can include mental health, family situation, where people live, and whether people have physical and economic access to safe and nutritious food. What is unique about this project is that it is so multidisciplinary,” says Maria Pereira, Docent at the Department of Medical Sciences.
Data will not only be collected from Sweden, but from several cohorts tracked in different European countries. The biological markers and socio-economic factors that the research team finds most relevant for predicting the risk of future unhealthy obesity will then form part of an algorithm. This could be used to identify people who are at higher risk of obesity. Erikson gives an example of how this can be done:
“The idea is to measure some markers in blood samples, be they biochemical or genetic, which can be taken by the participants themselves at home. They are also asked simple questions about body measurements, lifestyle and mental health. Taken together, these responses provide a score that can be used to predict whether you are at high risk of having severe obesity.”
Analysis kit could provide answers about risk
The EU project also involves a company that will develop a testing kit.
“If it works, it will then be made available to the public. A person who is worried about developing obesity and related diseases should be able to take the test and get an answer that tells them how high their risk is,” explains Pereira:
“A high risk score could encourage the person to participate in prevention programmes such as physical exercise or a better diet.”
Originates in poisonous lizards and bark
In a later part of the EU project, researchers will also investigate whether there are certain components in our diet that can be used to help with weight loss. Their plan is to conduct tests using the spice mixture za'atar and extracts from certain fungi, such as oyster mushrooms.
“Mushrooms contain certain amino acids that are known to activate some gut hormones that we know have positive effects on metabolism, in particular reducing appetite and food intake and regulating sugar balance. These hormones are already given in modified form through existing medicines, so this could be a natural way for us to get some of these effects through our diet,” adds Pereira.
The idea is to test the spice and mushroom extracts on cell and animal models and then later in clinical studies.
The notion that certain foods or molecules derived from natural products can have this effect is not unheard of in diabetes research.
“Most things in this industry are originally natural products that have been refined and made into synthetic medicines today. The precursor to the much-publicised diabetes drug Ozempic, which is also used under another name to treat obesity, was originally derived from the venom of a lizard in the southern US. Other revolutionary diabetes drugs, known as SGLT2 inhibitors, which lead to increased sugar excretion in urine and can cause some weight loss, were developed from a substance in the root bark of the apple tree,” notes Eriksson.
The PAS GRAS (French for 'No Fat') project, ‘De-Risking Metabolic, Environmental and Behavioural Determinants of Obesity in Children, Adolescent and Young Adults’ was launched in May 2023 and will run until 2028. The overall aim is to develop better methods to prevent obesity and its associated diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer. The research consortium is coordinated by the University of Coimbra, Portugal and involves a total of eight European countries.
Uppsala University has principal responsibility for the development of a risk assessment instrument, and partial responsibility for clinical studies. The latter part includes a clinical trial for optimal obesity treatment, combining the Mediterranean diet with new medicines and innovative food supplements, including mushroom components.
The project is funded by the EU’s Horizon programme.