The goal of the MRC Epidemiology Unit is to study the genetic, developmental and environmental determinants of obesity, type 2 diabetes and related metabolic disorders and to contribute to the prevention of these disorders.
Obesity, type 2 diabetes and related metabolic disorders present a major public health and research challenge. The number of people developing these disorders is increasing, and they result from the complex interplay of genetic and environmental factors that operate throughout life.
The MRC Epidemiology Unit studies these factors, and the outcomes from these studies are used to develop strategies for the prevention of these diseases in the general population.
We are a Medical Research Council Unit embedded as a department of the University of Cambridge School of Clinical Medicine.
The Unit is affiliated with two research Institutes, reflecting our connections with basic science, clinical medicine and public health.
The Unit is part of the Wellcome Trust – MRC Institute of Metabolic Science (IMS) on the Cambridge Biomedical Campus, where the principal offices and laboratories of the Unit are physically located. Unit Director Professor Nick Wareham is Co-Director of the IMS with Professor Sir Stephen O’Rahilly. Being embedded in the IMS is critical to our aspiration to examine associations between potential exposures and metabolic disease outcome, and to follow up these observations to determine possible causality and mechanisms.
The Unit is also a part of the Cambridge Institute of Public Health (CIPH). We closely collaborate with a number of departments within the CIPH, and many of our studies are run jointly with Institute colleagues. The CIPH acts as a route to a wide range of other multidisciplinary collaborations that aid the translation of epidemiological observations into public health action. The Institute also plays an important role in our teaching and training programme: our students usually undertake the Masters in Epidemiology or that in Public Health run by the Department of Public Health and Primary Care, to which our staff contribute as supervisors and lecturers.
Our research uses shared resources within the MRC Epidemiology Unit to investigate the causes of obesity and diabetes and to translate these findings into preventive action. The key goal for our research is to try to “follow through” and not simply make observations and leave it to others to translate our findings into action.
The Unit is structured and functions in a novel way to achieve our goals. Unlike traditional scientific units, we have a series of studies that contribute to each of the different research programmes.
The Unit has seven MRC-core funded programmes of research, each of which has its own programme leader. It also hosts the Centre for Diet and Activity Research (CEDAR), which studies diet and physical activity behaviours and develops and evaluates public health interventions.
This way, results from one study can be analysed by many programmes to identify trends and links in different areas of interest. As a consequence our science is defined in terms of the research programmes on which it is built, rather than the studies.
To generate the large volumes of data that are required to look at population trends an extensive team of people within the Unit is required. This team, which includes the Scientific Specialists and the Functional Group, undertakes the key functions required to run these studies and analyse the data generated from them. All of these people work to deliver data to the research scientists for analysis, comparison and interpretation. Together this enables us to improve our understanding of the causes and prevention of diabetes and obesity to improve the health of the public.