Wednesday, January 17, 2007

History of obesity

Boy, it seems like forever since Friday afternoon, and it is certainly true that I haven't been in the office much since then. Meteorologists: sometimes, they get it spectacularly wrong.

any case, Friday afternoon was when I sat in on Dr. Jonathan Purnell's lecture on the history of obesity, delivered to the second-year medical students in the history of medicine elective course. Purnell, who heads up the Center for the Study of Weight Regulation here at OHSU, made it clear from the outset that his topic was not "cultural norms" surrounding weight, but rather the history of the recognition of obesity as a medical condition. It wasn't until doctors began performing routine autopsies in the early 1900s that any thought was given to causes of obesity outside of sloth and laziness; a few cases of brain tumors associated with obesity-related deaths (as well as deaths due to starvation) clued researchers in to the presence of the satiety and feeding centers in the hypothalamus. This led to the development of the medical concept of obesity in the 1940s and 1950s.

By the 1950s, set point theories (lipostatic and glucostatic) ruled the day, until a series of studies of parabiotically-joined mice finally led to the discovery of the hormone leptin (also called the ob gene) in 1994. Since then, additional research has uncovered a host of possible factors in weight regulation. Yesterday in the online version of PNAS, researchers from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis published their findings on the role of bacteria in obesity. (Several media outlets--like LiveScience--have picked up on this research and translated for lay audiences, like me.) Dr. Purnell and the researchers at the OHSU CSWR have made a few key discoveries of their own, and their work on the mystery of this "silent killer" continues.

Since no research area is without its share of controversy, Purnell did tantalize the students with a brief mention of the feud between the ob gene hunters Dr. Jeffrey M. Friedman and Rudy Leibel. Their early work together is covered in numerous articles (such as this and this), but none of the dirty laundry is aired. Sounds like another great paper topic to me!

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