Researchers study obesity through genetics

by Jessica Steeno

Obesity is a medical mystery that might be solved through genetics, Dr. Jeffrey Friedman, professor and researcher at Rockefeller University in New York, said Wednesday during a lecture at Moos Tower.
The lecture, sponsored by the departments of biochemistry on both the Minneapolis and St. Paul campuses and the Minnesota Obesity Center, was attended by nearly 200 students and University staff members.
Friedman is a nationally-known expert on obesity whose work is “undisputed” according to Melanie Simpson, a research assistant in the University biochemistry department. Friedman has corporate as well as academic support. He recently received $20 million to continue his research on genetics and obesity from Amgen, a pharmaceutical company in Thousand Oaks, Calif.
In his address, Friedman said about 30 percent of the United States’ population is obese — at least 20 percent heavier than ideal body weight.
Because biochemical and behavioral studies of obesity have been inconclusive, Friedman said, he and his colleagues at Rockefeller University decided to study genetics.
“The evidence, I believe, is quite strong that genes play a role in controlling how much we weigh,” he said, “and becomes yet a further argument in support of the idea that body weight has some physiological, biological basis.”
Friedman said certain studies have shown that 80 to 90 percent of variance in body weight can be attributed to genetic factors.
His studies with mice suggested that when certain genes were mutated, they caused weight changes in the mice.
Friedman and his associates began research to isolate those genes on that basis.
They isolated a gene he calls the OB gene, which regulates body fat content. He is using this discovery as a cornerstone to search for other genes that might be associated with the body’s ability to control its weight.
Evolution has a role in explaining why humans today have problems with obesity, Friedman said.
Because food was scarce 10,000 years ago, the genes in the human body were predisposed to obesity. The body needed to be able to store fat in order to survive.
Friedman showed a slide explaining the role of evolution in obesity. The diagram showed prehistoric people next to the fruits, nuts and berries they ate to survive.
Then he pointed to a representation of the people of this century.
“And now,” Friedman said, “we put this gene pool into the 20th century, (with people) eating a diet of hamburgers, milkshakes and ice cream” and it leads to an increase in obesity.