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Obesity program receives $2 million in grants

Released: Thursday, June 20, 2002

The Pennington Biomedical Research Center of Louisiana State University System was awarded $2 million in obesity research funding through funds distributed by the Community Foundation for Southeastern Michigan.

Four awards were given to Pennington Center scientists. The largest is $739,000 and was awarded to Dr. Hans-Rudolf Berthoud, Chief of the Neurobiology of Nutrition Laboratory, to investigate mechanisms that control and coordinate food intake and energy expenditure.

Dr. Donna Ryan, Associate Executive Director for Clinical Research, was presented $500,000 toward a $1 million chair in Maternal Biology and the Risk of Obesity to promote better understanding of biologic factors in women that influence the risk for obesity.

A third award of $419,250 was given to Dr. Frank Greenway, Chief of the Clinical Obesity Laboratory and Outpatient Research Clinic, for studies of the herbal compounds that contain caffeine, ephedrine, tyrosine, and catechins.

Last, Dr. Steven Smith, Chief of the Endocrinology Laboratory, was awarded $330,750 to study which genes predict response to treatment with herbs and green tea when used as treatments for obesity.

Berthoud’s study, in collaboration with Drs. Richard Rogers, Gerlinda Hermann, and Andrew Butler, seeks to address a major obstacle in developing a treatment for obesity: food intake and energy expenditure both are subject to coordinated control by the central nervous system. “Intervene to change one and the other compensates, negating any beneficial long-term effect,” he says.

With that challenge in mind, Berthoud will investigate the neural circuits that regulate this balance and coordination to identify pharmaceutical targets for better treatment of obesity.

The Endowed Chair in Maternal Biology and the Risk of Obesity organized by Ryan will establish a new research program at the Pennington Center aimed at targeting the transmission of chronic disease risk between generations.

“We know that impairments in metabolism can predispose the fetus to risk for diabetes and other chronic diseases in adulthood. Scientists are regarding the maternal influences during pregnancy as important determinants of adult health, independent of genetic factors,” she says.

“This topic is of particular importance in a period in which we’re experiencing an unprecedented increase in the prevalence of childhood and adulthood obesity, as well as the development of obesity-related complications such as type 2 diabetes, which is now being seen during adolescence,” Ryan says.

Meanwhile, Greenway will examine an herbal weight-loss treatment based on a combination of caffeine and ephedrine, compounds found in green tea called catechins, and the amino acid tyrosine—all supplements that are popular for over-the-counter use in the United States and Europe. The longest clinical trial of these combinations, however, is eight weeks.

“Because of their widespread use, it is important that we evaluate their long-term safety and efficacy. The Dietary and Supplement Health and Education Act allows marketing these products without such testing,” says Greenway. “Our studies will be among the first legitimate assessments of these widely used products.”

He will also collaborate with Smith, who will be looking to understand why energy expenditure is increased in about half of patients receiving caffeine and ephedrine, while the other half does not respond.

“We know very little of why this treatment is effective in some patients and not others,” says Smith. “But molecular fingerprinting is being used to predict the prognosis of cancer patients, and we’ll use similar genetic techniques to separate obese individuals into those who will respond to caffeine and ephedrine and those who won’t.”

The research funds were provided by an order of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan as the result of the settlement of a product liability class action suit regarding an appetite suppressant manufactured by Metabolife International. The grants are administered by the Community Foundation for Southeastern Michigan, which distributed approximately $5 million to four institutions: Stanford University, Brown University, the University of Michigan, and the Pennington Biomedical Research Center.

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The Pennington Biomedical Research Center is at the forefront of medical discovery as it relates to understanding the causes of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and dementia. Itis a campus of the Louisiana State University System and conducts basic, clinical and population research. The research enterprise at the Center includes approximately 80 faculty and more than 25 post-doctoral fellows who comprise a network of 50 laboratories supported by lab technicians, nurses, dieticians, and support personnel, and 19 highly specialized core service facilities.  The Center's more than 500 employees perform research activities in state-of-the-art facilities on the 234-acre campus located in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.