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University of Cincinnati Academic Health Center
Publish Date: 07/15/99
Media Contact: AHC Public Relations, (513) 558-4553
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UC Receives Obesity Research Funding from Procter & Gamble

Cincinnati—The University of Cincinnati (UC) College of Medicine is receiving up to $5 million for obesity research from the Procter & Gamble Company (P & G). The collaborative project will be conducted by scientists at P & G and the UC Obesity Research Center and consists of several parts that will provide a better understanding of how appetite-controlling neurotransmitters in the brain control food intake and body weight. The three UC scientists who will be responsible for the different aspects of this study are: Stephen Woods, PhD, director of the Obesity Research Center and professor of psychiatry; Randy Seeley, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry; and Patrick Tso, PhD, professor of pathology and laboratory medicine.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), obesity is considered second only to cigarette smoking as a cause of preventable deaths in the United States. Cancer, heart disease, and diabetes are all associated with obesity. The latest NIH figures also show that 55 percent of Americans should be considered overweight. This research strives to determine why higher fat diets increase body weight and if the body becomes more efficient in storing fat when given a steady diet of higher fat foods. According to Woods, the researchers want to find out why a high-fat diet causes one to eat more and become obese.

The researchers in Woods' laboratory will conduct experiments to examine the role of several hormones that control food intake and body weight through their interaction with each other and their influence on the brain. Leptin is a hormone released by fatty adipose tissue into the bloodstream and is thought to carry biochemical messages to the brain to curb appetite. Insulin is released by the pancreas to convert carbohydrates into fat that is stored in the body as adipose tissue. Woods says that they are striving to understand how body fat may alter the secretion of hormones that affect hunger.

Tso's laboratory is currently conducting experiments to study the signals produced by the small intestine during the active absorption of a fatty meal. In particular, investigators from his laboratory discovered that the small intestine produces a satiety (feeling of fullness) factor which is very potent in reducing food intake. This research was supported in part by a University Exploratory Award from P & G, which is given each year for innovative research to only three scientists in the country.

Other active research projects being conducted in his lab focus on how fat, and especially cholesterol, is absorbed by the small intestine. Tso is also investigating to see how the intestine is involved in the development of obesity when the diet is high in fat.

Finally, Seeley will lead researchers in experiments to concentrate on specific neural circuits in the brain that control appetite and obesity. One example involves a melanocortin-4 receptor (MC-4 receptor) in the brain. Results of research done by Seeley and Woods suggest that when the MC-4 receptor is inhibited or blocked chemically, the brain cannot receive the normal chemical signal to stop eating. Eating too much then leads to a weight gain and eventually obesity. The MC-4 receptor is best known for its ability to regulate skin and hair color, but it is a vital link in the transmission of biochemical messages from leptin to the brain, says Seeley and Woods.

"The MC-4 receptor is like a doorway," says Seeley. "If the doorway or receptor is blocked, the brain never receives the chemical message from leptin that tells the body to stop eating. A better understanding of the MC-4 receptors may help us develop new drugs or foods that will prevent or reverse obesity by correcting the chemical pathways for appetite control," he adds.

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