A new approach to an old problem

(For Mac Peds) MAC-Obesity is using teamwork to identify and treat obesity.  

“We’re not just trying to understand the pathways to childhood obesity,” says Dr. Katherine Morrison. “More importantly, we’re trying to understand the pathways to ill health in kids with obesity. We really need to understand what’s going on in their bodies that’s causing them to develop high blood pressure, problems with blood sugar, sleep problems or depression.”

To further that kind of understanding, Morrison helped found the MAC-Obesity program which was launched in 2012. The intention of the program is teamwork, namely to bring together clinicians and basic science researchers to address some common questions around disturbances in metabolism related to childhood obesity.

It’s a new approach, something which Morrison sees as its primary strength. “We can’t simply keep saying eat less and exercise more.  We know that hasn’t worked to improve health. We need to focus on how to help patients change behaviours and on improving how our bodies regulate themselves and use energy.”

The program brings together the best of two worlds, namely work with patients in clinic and work in the laboratory. The MAC-Obesity program involves staff and physicians from four departments within the university, and spans the divisions within the department of pediatrics. It includes more than 30 researchers and clinicians, all of whom have notable accomplishments in their respective fields. The program is co-led by Dr. Gregory Steinberg, an associate professor in the department of Medicine who holds a Canada Research Chair in Metabolism, Obesity and Type 2 Diabetes.

From bench to bedside

The intention is to use what researchers are finding in the lab in order to improve both understanding and care. “They can do things in the lab that we can’t do,” says Morrison of the researchers involved in the program. “They can use animal models and look at fat and muscle cells, [things] that we obviously can’t do. By working towards answering the same questions using different methods we will improve the health of the kids that we see in clinic.” The goal, ultimately, is to prevent the development of health problems related to obesity and to treat kids who already have them.

Start-up funding for the program includes $450,000 from the Hamilton Health Sciences Foundation and physical space at the McMaster Children’s Hospital, in addition to $1 million and equipment and research infrastructure from McMaster University. Recent examples of the multi-faceted research being conducted by members of the MAC-Obesity team include studies which have demonstrated the need for screening of pre-diabetes in overweight children, the identification of key genes controlling the beneficial effects of exercise and the impact of a diet high in fat on fetal development and survival.


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