Unique research centre

By Chris Rodley

Photo of Professor Jill Trewhella

Professor Jill Trewhella

In 2008, World Health Organization research found that 500 million adults were obese, and cardiovascular disease was the number one cause of death globally. By 2030 it is estimated that some 23.6 million people will die each year from stroke and heart disease.

The University of Sydney has taken up the challenge presented by these facts, establishing a centre for research into obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease that aims to significantly reduce the personal and social burden of these conditions by transforming the way we eat, work and live.

Vice-Chancellor Dr Michael Spence says, “It is a genuinely multi-disciplinary initiative that involves the whole University in addressing these really pressing social and medical problems.” And that’s because our own nation is not immune. One in four Australians is now classified as obese, and at risk of a long list of chronic health problems or an early death. Nor is it just the affluent West that is affected: in India, other parts of Asia, the South Pacific, Central and South America and Africa, the incidence of obesity and diabetes is increasing at alarming rates.

The causes of these diseases are complex and the product of many factors, ranging from which genes people inherit to the foods they are able to buy in their supermarket, and how they spend their working lives. Reducing the prevalence, incidence and impact of the diseases requires a broad-based and coordinated effort.

“Importantly, we will integrate the humanities and the social sciences, as well as medicine and science, in formulating the problems themselves, the solutions, and how they can be implemented on a global scale,” the Vice-Chancellor says. “The new centre will transform research into the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of these conditions, involving everything from metabolic research to the economics of food supply.”

Professor Jill Trewhella, Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research, shares this vision. “We will be investigating how food gets from the paddock to the plate and how it gets marketed, as well as legal and policy questions, such as what kind of regulatory regime you need to put in place to make sure people are not exploited by those selling cheap food,” she says.

Architects and urban planners will help to design communities that encourage people to stay healthy and active, while cultural theorists will explore issues such as the media construction of obesity. Inspiration may come from the most unlikely sources: one major NHMRC-funded study now being undertaken into human metabolism by biologist Professor Stephen Simpson was initially inspired by his studies of why locusts swarm. “The scope of possible research directions is almost infinite,” says Trewhella.

The centre’s Academic Director, Professor David Cook, will be putting the emphasis squarely on studies that make a practical difference to global community health. “A core driving philosophy is outcomes,” says Cook. “We will be looking not only for great research but evidence of the impact of that research.”

The $385 million building, which will become the centre’s research and teaching hub when it is completed in 2014, represents the largest infrastructure investment in the history of the University. It is being partially funded by a $95 million Federal Government grant, and the work of the centre will also be supported through the sale of a painting by Picasso given to the University by an anonymous donor on condition that it be sold and the funds directed to scientific research. (see the Picasso donation)

Construction begins in September on the new complex, which will house many of the centre’s researchers. Set over 50,000 square metres – more than twice the size of the Sydney Cricket Ground – the six-storey building will offer wet and dry research space for 800 researchers as well as a host of new teaching facilities.

Photo of Professor Ian Caterson

Professor Ian Caterson

The breadth of disciplines incorporated into the centre make it unique on Australia’s research landscape; and the state-of-the-art complex will incorporate a number of design elements that inspire collaboration. Common rooms and cafes (with healthy menus!) will bring researchers together informally to share ideas. Transparent glass walls and the use of stairways rather than lifts will create physical and visual connections between disparate research groups.

The work of the centre’s researchers is already producing some promising breakthroughs: take a new study by Professors Ian Caterson and Len Storlien from the Boden Institute of Obesity, Nutrition and Exercise and molecular biologist Dr Andrew Holmes.

Over 12 weeks, obese patients were asked to follow one of two diets: either a traditional low-calorie diet or a Korean eating pattern emphasising rice and vegetables. “Both groups actually lost similar amounts of weight,” Caterson explains. “But when we looked at the microbes in their gut, we discovered we could pick the individuals who were going to lose weight on either diet. They all had the same change taking place in their bacteria.”

Thanks to the study, doctors may now have a simple way to know who is likely to lose weight on a diet and who should pursue a riskier intervention such as gastric band surgery. It may also suggest our gut bacteria can be altered, perhaps through a probiotic, to create better conditions for diets to work.

At the moment, Caterson and Storlien are physically located at some distance from Holmes, and Caterson is looking forward to the prospect of the personal interaction the building will bring. “Mixing people with really different backgrounds is a vital part of this work,” says Caterson. “The centre would let teams like ours talk to each other by simply walking down the corridor.”

Access to dedicated infrastructure will also boost his research, he adds. “Labs with sophisticated instrumentation will let us observe bacteria and do molecular biology much more quickly, and see more, and there will be fantastic facilities for clinical studies too.”