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New study to identify genetic link with obesity and diabetes

1 September 2015

The largest ever study to identify genes that predispose New Zealanders to obesity and type-2 diabetes was announced today by the Maurice Wilkins Centre at the annual Queenstown Research Week.

Study researchers will analyse up to 500 genes suspected of affecting individuals’ appetite and/or the way they control their energy metabolism.

More than 600 people, in groups most at risk for these conditions will be enrolled in the study and the first results will be available early next year.

University of Auckland’s Professor Peter Shepherd, who is one of the co-directors of the study and is deputy director of the Maurice Wilkins Centre says, ”The study is a great step forward as it involves the best clinicians and scientists in this space from across the country putting their minds together to address this very important issue”.  Professor Shepherd will give a public lecture focussing on these issues in Queenstown on Thursday.

The clinical co-director of the programme, Dr Rinki Murphy from the University of Auckland says, “There are clearly biological factors that predispose some people to greater risk of developing obesity and diabetes and if we can identify genes that play a role in this we will be better placed to successfully tackle these major diseases”

Associate Professor Tony Merriman from the University of Otago will be co-director responsible for genetic analysis. This will utilise the significant genetics expertise built up at the University of Otago in recent years as well as his experience studying the genetics of gout in New Zealand. 

“The technology to analyse genes is advancing rapidly and this type of study is now feasible in New Zealand,” says Dr Merriman.  “Our experience in studying the genetics of gout suggests that the new study has a high chance of finding important new information that can be clinically useful”

Director of the Maurice Wilkins Centre, Professor Rod Dunbar says “The Centres of Research Excellence structure has made it possible to get access to the level of resource required to perform this type of work and to rapidly build inter-institutional collaborations that make the most out of the resources we have in New Zealand.”

The work in this study is also supported by Dr Giles Yeo, an obesity expert from the University of Cambridge who is presenting his work this week at Queenstown Research week. 

Dr Yeo is also a presenter of the new BBC documentary ‘The Perfect Diet for You’ which attempted for the first time to match peoples genetics with an appropriate diet to try to achieve better long term weight loss. 

“The planned study by the Maurice Wilkins Centre is an important one for New Zealand as it will allow a much better understanding of the genetic risk factors and it will also be an important contribution to our global knowledge in this area,” says Dr Yeo.“ I believe there is a high likelihood this will lead to better strategies for achieving and maintaining weight loss in New Zealanders” 

Queenstown Research Week (QRW) is New Zealand's largest annual biological sciences event and has been held annually in Queenstown for over 25 years. 

It is based around three major annual meetings; Queenstown Molecular Biology Meeting, Australasian Winter Conference on Brain Research and NZ Medical Sciences Congress, plus six additional satellite meetings  on a diverse range of scientific themes. 

This year there are 1300 registrants to these meetings and for the first time there will be an associated series of public science events being held in Queenstown during the week.  More than 600 local people have registered in advance for these events. 


Listen to interviews with Peter Shepherd on Newstalk ZB and Radio New Zealand