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New prize awarded to researcher for improving the understanding of the genetic component of obesity

Professor Ruth Loos is the first recipient of the new Obesity Prize for Excellence established by the European Association for the Study of Obesity (EASO) and the Novo Nordisk Foundation. The Prize is accompanied by DKK 2 million. Four other researchers also receive awards.

In January 2023, the European Association for the Study of Obesity (EASO) and the Novo Nordisk Foundation announced that they were establishing a new Obesity Prize for Excellence for an agenda-setting researcher within obesity. They have now selected the first recipient.

The Prize has been awarded to Ruth Loos, Professor, Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Basic Metabolic Research, University of Copenhagen for her outstanding contribution to understanding the genetic component associated with the development of obesity.

The Prize is accompanied by DKK 2 million, of which DKK 300,000 is a personal award and DKK 1.7 million for research.

“I am delighted that Ruth Loos is receiving this prestigious Prize. Her research on the effects of genetic and non-genetic factors in developing obesity is groundbreaking for understanding the physiology behind weight gain and developing obesity. In addition, she has used the results of her research to make key recommendations on the commercial use of genetic tests to determine people’s risk of developing obesity. I hope that this Prize will encourage her to continue this promising work,” says Arne Astrup, MD, Professor and Senior Vice President, Obesity and Nutritional Sciences, Novo Nordisk Foundation.

EASO President Professor Jason Halford said “Congratulations from the EASO family to the Prize and award winners announced today. We are delighted to have the opportunity to partner with the Novo Nordisk Foundation to support these five research-focused annual grants per year for three years. We very much look forward to hearing from the winners, who will be officially recognised and share presentations on 18 May 2023 at the European Congress on Obesity in Dublin.”

In addition to the Obesity Prize for Excellence, EASO and the Foundation have also awarded four New Investigator Awards within basic research, clinical research, obesity among children and public health, respectively. Each of these awards is accompanied by a research grant of DKK 300,000. See the recipients below.

Identified the first gene associated with the risk of obesity
Ruth Loos’ work is extensive; already in 2007, she helped to identify the first locus on the human genome that could be associated with an increased risk of developing obesity.

This work paved the way for identifying the second locus on the genome related to the risk of developing obesity, and since then she has been the leading force in the Genetic Investigation of Anthropometric Traits (GIANT) consortium, which has identified more than 1,500 loci in the human genome associated with body mass index (BMI).

This research has shown that genes that influence the brain comprise a major component of the genetic risk for developing obesity.

“The research has required extensive collaboration between researchers in many fields because it requires more than just knowing which genes are associated with the risk of developing obesity. It also requires knowing which proteins or hormones the genes express and how they thereby affect our biology. One reason I moved my research to Denmark was because my office is next to some of the world’s most talented researchers in translational biology,” explains Ruth Loos.

Obesity originates early in life
However, mapping the many genetic variants that can affect a person’s BMI has also clearly shown that genes do not solely determine whether people develop obesity or not. Environment also plays a crucial role.

Much of Ruth Loos’ current research therefore comprises understanding how genetics is linked with environment in determining BMI. She and her colleagues initiated one of the most in-depth mappings ever of the genetics and metabolism of 10,000 people not only to determine why they have the BMI they do but also to learn more about their risk for developing such diseases as metabolic and cardiovascular diseases.

The researchers will follow the participants for 25 years, but the researchers will already learn more about why people look the way they do in the early phases of the study.

The Prize awarded by EASO and the Foundation is accompanied by DKK 1.7 million for research, and Ruth Loos has already earmarked the funds for a project in which she and colleagues will genetically map 16,000 children and their mothers with the aim of discovering whether the proteins expressed in their blood can be used to predict who will develop obesity later in life, similar to the genetic component of obesity.

“Obesity starts early in life, so predicting who will develop obesity requires examining children. When children are 2–8 years old, they are already stuck in a weight curve that is difficult to escape. It is therefore important if we can discover which genes and proteins determine the weight curve children will follow throughout life before they reach these ages to investigate opportunities for intervening,” says Ruth Loos.

Four researchers receive New Investigator Awards

In addition to the Prize awarded to Ruth Loos, four researchers have received New Investigator Awards from EASO and the Foundation as follows.

Basic science – Cintia Folgueira Cobos, Postdoctoral Fellow, Spanish National Center for Cardiovascular Research, Madrid. Her research has shown that a specific mitochondrial protein is downregulated in adipose tissue among people with obesity compared with people with normal weight. The protein may play a role in thermogenesis in brown adipose tissue, which opens a therapeutic window for protecting against obesity by modulating its expression.

Clinical Research – Sini Heinonen, MD and Postdoctoral Fellow at HUS (Helsinki University Hospital) in Finland, is being recognized for her pioneering research on the association between obesity and a significant reduction in the mitochondrial capacity of adipose tissue, which profoundly impacts metabolic health. Her current work investigates how weight loss through bariatric surgery can restore adipose tissue metabolism, a key discovery which can support developing new treatments for people with obesity.

Public health – Susanna Mills, Clinical Lecturer and Public Health Speciality Registrar, Newcastle University, United Kingdom. Susanna Mills has carried out extensive research on how severe mental illness affects the risk of developing obesity and its associated comorbidities. Her work has also focused on weight control in this vulnerable group of people.

Childhood Obesity – Cristina Cadenas-Sanchez, Marie Curie Postdoctoral fellow, University of Granada (Spain); Stanford University & VA Palo Alto Health Care System, (USA)  is receiving the Award for important research on such topics as the association between physical activity and brain health among children with obesity and the association between physical activity, fitness and fat deposition among children with obesity.

Further information

Christian Mostrup
Senior Lead, Public Relations
+45 3067 4805 [email protected]