How Science Can Fight the Obesity Epidemic

Putting obesity under the microscope

If you read the news, you know obesity and diabetes are epidemics sweeping the United States. You’ve heard the scary facts and figures and seen the troubling photos. The problem is undeniable. But how do we stop it?

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Some advocate banning fatty foods and abolishing sugary sodas in our schools to help curb childhood obesity. Others believe that promoting exercise is the key to solving the crisis.

Nutrition and exercise are certainly vital pieces of the prevention puzzle — but they are not the only pieces. With more than one-third of our population obese and 8 percent diabetic, we need to tackle this complex problem from all possible angles.

That includes taking a closer look at the biology that drives obesity.

The biological disadvantage

“You brought this upon yourself.” Sadly, this is the stigma that obese individuals and people with diabetes often face.

“Science tells us there is more to obesity than meets the eye. To solve the obesity crisis, we need to look at the big picture — and take a closer look under the microscope.”

Paul DiCorleto

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Paul DiCorleto, PhD

Lerner Research Institute

The choices people make matter, of course, but scientists also are discovering that some people are born with a distinct disadvantage when it comes to weight gain. Several studies have suggested that our biological makeup plays a role in how hungry we get and how our bodies metabolize fat. One recent study showed that a mutation in a single gene involved in regulating metabolism leads to rare but severe childhood obesity.

Of course, finding biological culprits is about more than simply explaining why some people are more prone to obesity than others. The more we understand about the processes that lead to weight gain, the more we can develop therapies that stop and even reverse those processes.

Current research for future therapies

Lerner Research Institute’s J. Mark Brown, PhD, studies the protein ABHD6. This protein is part of a biological pathway that regulates metabolism, craving and hunger. Dr. Brown has done studies in mice in which blocking the actions of ABHD6 prevented diseases driven by a high-fat diet, including obesity, diabetes and liver disease.

Dr. Brown’s discovery opens the possibility for future drugs that block the action of ABHD6, and thereby block the pathway to obesity. Such therapy may be years down the road, but science has now paved the path to it.

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Other therapies in development are based on similar ideas. For example, the metabolic inhibitor drug beloranib has been in the news lately. Made by Zafgen, Inc., beloranib blocks a protein involved in how the body metabolizes fatty acids and uses excess fat as fuel.

The company’s trials on beloranib have shown exciting results in severely obese patients. These patients experienced weight loss, reduced hunger, and lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

Beloranib and other therapies, while still several years away from FDA approval, have the potential to prolong and improve thousands of lives. That’s especially good news for high-risk individuals who are too sick to exercise or undergo weight loss surgery.

Science tells us there is more to obesity than meets the eye. To solve the obesity crisis, we need to look at the big picture — and take a closer look under the microscope.

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