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July 2010 Issue

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Hunger for Answers Turns Physician Into Leading International Researcher on Obesity

Published July 2010


Matthias Tschöp, MD, is a fast talker—obviously excited about his work—and he sketches notes and diagrams even more quickly to better explain the processes and pathways he’s studying.

It’s complex stuff. Leptin. Ghrelin. Neurocircuitry.

But it’s the kind of stuff that Tschöp wasn’t able to tackle much earlier in his career.
After receiving his medical degree in 1994 from Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich, Germany, Tschöp began his endocrinology residency and research fellowship at Munich’s Innenstadt University Hospital—both of which he completed in 1999.

"I was sometimes frustrated seeing the same people time and again with the same metabolic problems where symptoms could often be managed with medicine, but the causes and mechanisms weren’t well understood scientifically,” he says.

That frustration prompted Tschöp to leave patient care and begin searching for answers to some complex questions: How is body weight controlled by communication between fat cells, the stomach and certain parts of the brain? What role does the central nervous system have in regulating the number of calories burned in muscle tissue?

His curiosity led him to a postdoctoral scientist position at Lilly Research Laboratories in Indianapolis and in 2002 he returned to Germany to lead a laboratory at the German Institute of Human Nutrition near Berlin.

Tschöp was recruited to UC’s Reading Campus in 2003 and was named full professor in 2009. He’s now leading the research arm of the College of Medicine’s Center of Excellence in metabolism and diabetes—the Cincinnati Diabetes and Obesity Center—and recently rallied several nationally known speakers and more than 150 scientists and physicians from UC and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center to an all-day diabetes and obesity research symposium.

The scientist has published 165 peer-reviewed papers in high impact journals such as Nature, Science and Nature Medicine, and currently has more than $7.3 million in research funding. His findings on fructose, leptin’s link to sepsis survival and ghrelin activation by fatty foods have earned national headlines and television coverage, but he says some of his most important work is also his most recently published finding: Cholesterol circulation is remotely controlled by the brain.

"We have long thought that cholesterol is exclusively regulated through dietary absorption or synthesis and secretion by the liver and other peripheral tissues,” says Tschöp.

"Our study shows for the first time that cholesterol is also under direct ‘remote control’ by specific neurocircuitry in the central nervous system which opens up new neuroscientific perspectives for cardiovascular disease.”

Although it’s too soon to say how this finding will impact human health, Tschöp says the knowledge adds to a growing body of evidence for the central nervous system’s direct control over essential metabolic processes.

Tschöp will be honored for his work this month with the International Association for the Study of Obesity’s Andre Mayer Award and again in September with the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases 60th Anniversary Early Career Investigator/Scholar Award, 2010.

He’s quick to point out, however, that his success is only made possible by the smart and hard-working team of more than 20 students, fellows and associates in his laboratory.

Tschöp is married to Susanna Hofmann, PhD, also an obesity researcher at UC. They have two children, Franziska, 3, and Carl, 21 months.

Rewarding Innovation

The research of Matthias Tschöp, MD, requires some very detailed measurements, some easier to get than others, but difficult to gather all at once. He must be able to determine caloric intake, absorption, partitioning and expenditure, as well as physical activity, body heat and heart rate under the controlled influence of different diets, calorie availabilities and environmental temperatures.

To generate the data he needs, Tschöp has helped to define the requirements for novel specialized cage systems to gather real-time information about the mouse and rat subjects he studies.

In April he was awarded a $450,000 instrumentation grant from the National Center for Research Resources to obtain the "smart” 24-cage system, a pioneering combination of methods to get deeper snapshots of "systems metabolism” in mice or rats.

The award funds were made possible by the American Recov-ery and Reinvestment Act.

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