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Experts share knowledge in fight against obesity

Oct. 03, 2013 @ 09:06 AM

HUNTINGTON — One the nation’s leading researchers on obesity and metabolic syndrome visited Huntington on Wednesday to be part of Marshall University’s Inaugural Childhood Obesity Conference, hosted by the Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine.

As part of his keynote address, Dr. Jeffrey Friedman shared information about his research on the role that a person’s genetic hard-wiring has on his or her likelihood to become obese. Acknowledging that other key factors involved are a person’s volition, environment and lifestyle, he said he’s focused mostly on genetics and determined that some of his findings challenge the position that a person’s weight gain is entirely under his or her control.

Having him in Huntington is a big deal, university officials said. The multiple award-winning scientist discovered leptin, a hormone that feeds into the circuit of neurons in the brain that control eating and energy expenditure. Friedman is considered by many as the foremost expert in the field.

“I expect that he will receive a Nobel prize in the next few years,” said Dr. Joseph Shapiro, dean of the medical school.

Friedman was one of several researchers to speak at the conference on Wednesday, which took place at the Big Sandy Superstore Arena Conference Center and attracted hundreds of Marshall University students focused on health and education.

Other speakers included Shapiro, Dr. Nader Abraham, Dr. James Bailes, Dr. Yoram Elitsur, all from Marshall, Dr. William Neal of West Virginia University and Daniel Rosenberg of the University of Connecticut. They shared information about their research and health care experiences in Huntington, throughout the state and at the national level. Other area health care officials, educators and policy-makers participated as well.

To have an opportunity to hear and ask questions of these experts is a tremendous opportunity for Marshall students, said university President Stephen Kopp.

It’s “the kind of mentoring we need for the next generation of researchers,” Kopp said.

The conference and Friedman’s visit signify Marshall’s commitment and key role in research aimed at understanding and addressing obesity, said John Maher, vice president for research at Marshall University.  The issue has quality-of-life, economic and many other repercussions in Appalachia and throughout the country, he said.

“It’s one of the critical challenges of our time,” Maher said.

Marshall now has a group of researchers who are collaborating effectively and broadening the scope of what Marshall can accomplish in this arena, he said. Kopp agreed.

Friedman — a professor at Rockefeller University in New York and winner of the 2010 Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research — has worked with Shapiro and Abraham, vice dean for research at Marshall’s medical school. They played a role in his visit to Huntington, and with Kopp, Shapiro presented Friedman with an honorary Marshall degree during the conference.

Shapiro has brought a very collaborative perspective to Marshall as its dean, and he and Abraham are among those who “are very much the type of mentors we need to stimulate growth,” Kopp said.

In his presentation, Friedman discussed his discovery of leptin, a hormone that sets up a biological force for the body to resist weight change. There are extremely rare cases of individuals whose bodies don’t make leptin, and therefore the brain thinks the body is starving, he said. Leptin therapy reversed the weight gain of a boy who was 90 pounds at age 4, With the therapy, he was at a healthy weight by age 6.

In most obesity cases, however, leptin therapy wouldn’t work because the person already has enough of the hormone, Friedman said. His research did indicate that about 15 percent of obese people have a genetic problem with their body’s neural circuits involving leptin. That might not sound like a big percentage, but considering all the factors that go into overeating and weight gain, it’s a significant number, he said.

“I think this data challenges the assumptions that we make when we see an obese person,” he said. For at least 15 percent of them, it’s genetic, and he’s pursuing further research that may answer further questions.

“Feeding is a complex, motivational behavior,” he said, adding that sensory and emotional factors play a part, as well as will power.

“All these inputs are integrated,” he said, and only 5 percent of those who lose weight keep it off for the long term, he said.

His advice: Focus on improving your health, rather than weight loss for appearance’s sake. Exercise and eat a heart healthy diet. He said those who are overweight should do their best to lose some weight, even a modest amount. A small, attainable amount of weight lost is more beneficial to one’s health than setting an intimidating, huge weight loss goal, he said.

“Do not berate yourself,” he said. “It’s a powerful, biological system. And don’t berate anyone else.”

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