Two scientists whose work challenges the assumption that obesity is caused by a lack of willpower were on Tuesday announced as the winners of the Shaw Prize, known as the Nobel Prize of the east.
Douglas Coleman and Jeffrey Friedman, who both work in the United States, will share the one-million-dollar Shaw Prize for Life Sciences and Medicine, organisers of the award said.
The pair were given the coveted award for their separate research which led to the discovery of leptin, a hormone that regulates food intake and bodyweight.
The discovery has challenged the conventional wisdom that obesity is caused by a lack of willpower and provided a genetic explanation.
"For those people who are beset with the problem of obesity, this is a most important discovery," Yang Chen-ning, a professor and chairman of the Shaw Prize board, told reporters in Hong Kong.
"We all know that there is a tendency for relatives of obese persons to blame the person for lack of willpower.
"This discovery already shows that it is not a matter of willpower that is at the root of the problem of obesity, it is in fact a chemical process."
The discovery has also helped scientists develop treatments for diabetes and women struggling to menstruate, and Yang said the work could lead to a more effective way to tackle obesity.
"It is not impossible within five or 10 years that (a technique) could come into the market which would be welcome be all obese persons," he said.
The Shaw Prize was first awarded in 2004 under the auspices of Run Run Shaw, a renowned Hong Kong film producer and philanthropist.
This year's Shaw Prize for astronomy was awarded to Frank Shu, a Chinese-born expert in star formation, who is based at the University of California in San Diego.
The prize for mathematical sciences was shared between Simon Donaldson, a British professor at Imperial College, London, and Clifford Taubes, a US professor at Harvard University, for their work on three and four-dimensional geometry.
The awards will be presented at a glittering ceremony in Hong Kong later in the year.