The recent news that the Nutrition Science Initiative — or NuSI, which will research what constitutes a healthy diet, is opening its doors in San Diego underscores the expanding role that the region is playing as a hub for metabolic research, especially in the areas of obesity and diabetes.

The nonprofit NuSI said it will sponsor research into the role that so-called bad calories play in the obesity epidemic raging in the U.S.

That NuSI should open its doors in San Diego should come as no surprise to industry observers.

The region plays host to a number of life science concerns that seek new ways of treating diabetes, which is closely related to the obesity epidemic.

San Diego resident Peter Attia, a medical doctor and former business consultant, who has had his own battles with weight, serves as president of NuSI.

“There is no doubt that this is an area worthy of all the study imaginable,” he said.

“San Diego is a fertile place, and ready to grow in the same way that Silicon Valley was in the early days for semiconductor technology,” said Attia. “We believe that NuSI is going to catalyze in a similar way the best and brightest minds to solve the problem of obesity.”

Not All Calories Are the Same

Writer Gary Taubes is the other founder of NuSI; he explores the connection between the obesity epidemic and the fact that according to him some calories are worse than others — that not every calorie consumed is treated the same by the human body.

His two books, “Why We Get Fat,” and “Good Calories, Bad Calories” are bestsellers on the topic.

It’s a controversial theory, but one getting close scrutiny in research circles.

Jennifer Landress, vice president and COO for BioCom, attributes the large number of life science firms to the region’s research infrastructure.

More than 80 research institutes dot the landscape, and the area boasts UC San Diego, one of the premiere research schools in the state in the area of life science.

“There is a lot of work connected to diabetes coming out of those research institutes,” she said.

“Whether or not we’re considered the capital, I don’t know, but there is a lot of research under way here that could back up such a statement,” she added. “There are certainly a lot of companies that have had successes in that space, and there is certainly a tremendous amount of research that goes on here in San Diego, which ultimately leads to new companies being created.”

Companies involved in obesity and diabetes research include:

• Sorrento Valley-based Arena Pharmaceuticals Inc. received U.S. FDA approval for its anti-obesity drug this summer, the first of two medications OK’d to “fight fat” since 1999.

• La Jolla-based Orexigen Therapeutics Inc.is waiting approval for its anti-obesity drug.

• Del Mar Heights-based Elcelyx Therapeutics Inc. received an additional $4 million as part of a Series B round to finance further development of a compound that tells the brain that the body has eaten enough. The firm has raised more than $20 million to date in venture capital. It is also working on a treatment for Type 2 diabetes, or so-called adult onset diabetes.

• La Jolla-based Cebix Inc., which is developing a supplemental treatment for Type 1 diabetes, which usually starts in childhood, said it is raising $20 million to pursue R&D, and reported in a filing this spring that it had raised $9 million.

• Bristol-Myers Squibb said in June that it was acquiring San Diego’s Amylin Pharmaceuticals, a blockbuster deal that could be worth $7 billion to investors. The deal came after the company received FDA approval to sell its anti-diabetes drug.

• Sorrento Valley-based insulin pump maker Tandem Diabetes Care said recently that is has raised $36 million in a new round of equity financing, bringing the total amount of money raised to $100 million. The FDA has cleared sales of the company’s portable insulin pump.

San Diego Is a Research Hub

Alain Baron, a former medical doctor who is president and CEO of Elcelyx Therapeutics, traces the root of San Diego’s obesity and diabetes research power back to the era of Vertex Pharmaceuticals, which acquired Aurora Biosciences Corp. in 2001. The company was working on drug development systems in a number of areas based on genetic-related research at the time, he said, including metabolic disorders.

Baron said the research effort didn’t happen overnight; it started with technology and then came expertise.

“They feed on each other,” he said

Meanwhile, Attia repeats a number of important statistics about diabetes in his blog at eatingacademy.com, which covers his personal connections with obesity.

He notes that 34 percent of Americans are obese and two-thirds are overweight, a 200 percent increase from 1970.

Diabetes Is an Epidemic

More than 8 percent of Americans are diabetic, and the medical profession believes that an additional 26 percent of Americans are pre-diabetic, a 400 percent increase from 1970. Overall, close to 29 million U.S. adults and children are diabetic.

In addition, the American Diabetes Association puts the financial burden at $174 billion, $116 billion in direct medical costs and another $58 billion for indirect costs, such as the work-related absences and early death.

“NuSI is looking to concentrate all nutrition science funding efforts into one common and strategic path to resolution, rather than individual efforts that don’t build to a greater scientific understanding,” said Attia.