UKM and the University of Oxford spearhead study on obesity and NCDs


International collaboration: Prof Lewington (third from left) receiving a gift from the UKM delegation when they visited the University of Oxford recently.

Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) is the first university in the world to lead a large-scale imaging study through dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry (DXA) scans and involving 6,000 participants.

Titled “Obesity and non-communicable diseases in Malaysia: An imaging study of 6,000 adults in the Malaysian cohort study”, it aims to research obesity and non-communicable diseases – which are becoming more prevalent in Malaysia and around the world – in partnership with the University of Oxford, United Kingdom.

UKM vice-chancellor Prof Datuk Dr Mohd Ekhwan Toriman said currently, there are no DXA or large-scale MRI imaging studies in Malaysia to directly measure body fat to enable researchers to understand the relationship between body composition and non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.

Therefore, he said, the study aims to understand the association of obesity in causing diabetes and heart disease.

“Besides that, comparisons between the diversity of ethnic groups in Malaysia and in the UK can also be done,” he said, adding that new methods such as DXA and MRI can be used to confirm the conventional instrument body mass index (BMI).

Prof Mohd Ekhwan said this collaboration between UKM and the University of Oxford can have a great impact on Malaysia’s health system, especially in the development and use of new BMIs that are more suitable for Asians, especially the Malaysian population.

He said the current BMI from the World Health Organization (WHO) is based on the Caucasian population and categorises those with a BMI below 18.5 as underweight, between 18.5 and 25 as normal, between 25 and 30 as overweight, and above 30 as obese.

“Therefore, it is important to determine what is the normal range for excess body fat from each ethnic group in Malaysia so that a more accurate range can be introduced,” he added.

“Using an accurate classification is important for effective intervention to curb the increasing effects of obesity such as Type II diabetes and heart disease,” he said.

Prof Mohd Ekhwan also said the project had the potential to enhance industry collaboration, especially in identifying the best treatment methods involving rare diseases specific to obesity such as proopiomelanocortin (POMC) deficiency, leptin receptor (LepR) deficiency, Bardet-Biedl Syndrome (BBS), Alstrom syndrome, and Prader-Willi syndrome.

Throughout the study, UKM Institute of Molecular Medicine (Umbi) will be performing 6,000 DXA imaging and 100 MRI imaging to assess body composition among The Malaysian Cohort (TMC) participants, in collaboration with UKM Faculty of Medicine Department of Radiology and the University of Westminster, UK.

It is jointly led by Prof Sarah Lewington from Nuffield Department of Population Health, University of Oxford, and Umbi Assoc Prof Dr Nor Azian Abdul Murad, with RM994,000 funding from the Higher Education Ministry.

The project is part of Umbi’s TMC Project, which is similar to the UK Biobank project.

Separately, Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman (UTAR) has announced the recent setting up of the Nutrigenetics and Nutrigenomics Research and Training Unit (N²RTU) at its Sungai Long campus.

UTAR vice president (R&D and Commercialisation) Prof Dr Faidz Abd Rahman said he believes that the Malaysian-UK collaborative project funded by the British Council Malaysia will enable Malaysian researchers and healthcare practitioners to undertake nutrigenetics and nutrigenomics research for disease prevention and treatment.

University of Reading Institute of Food, Nutrition and Health (IFNH) deputy director Prof Vimal Karani S., who presented a talk during the N²RTU launch ceremony on Feb 16, said nutrigenetics is the science that studies the effect of genetic variation on dietary response while nutrigenomics is the study of how genes and nutrients interact at the molecular level.

He said many studies have shown that it is the interaction between genetics and lifestyle factors that contributes to the development of cardiometabolic diseases such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

However, he said, one can still overcome a high genetic risk through a change in diet and physical activity.

He said findings from nutrigenetics and nutrigenomics are essential to develop an optimum diet for an individual based on that individual’s genetic makeup.

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