Mason Experts Weigh in on Obesity

Posted: October 26, 2006 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Lori Jennings

With the holiday season approaching – and along with it concerns about one’s waistline – the Gazette turned to a number of Mason researchers who focus on some aspect of obesity. Ranging from the complex study of protein in cells to the idea that one’s environment determines one’s weight, their research examines various elements of this life-threatening problem.

Following is a look at some of their interests and current projects.

Could Obesity Become Extinct?

World-renowned Mason researchers Emanuel Petricoin and Lance Liotta hope their research can eventually contribute to the demise of the life-threatening condition of obesity.

Lance Liotta
Lance Liotta

Using their own proprietary technology within the field of proteomics, which is the study of protein activity in cells, Petricoin and Liotta, co-directors of Mason’s Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine in the College of Science, are partnering with Inova Fairfax Hospital on studies that may eventually help doctors prevent an overweight person from becoming obese.

Specifically, they are analyzing human fat cells from obese patients to determine how the protein pathways within individual cells are essentially “wired” and interact with each other. For the first time, the team is mapping portraits of protein networks in obese people to better understand and determine what irregularities contribute to obesity.

Emanuel Petricoin
Emanuel Petricoin

“At this time, the team is focusing on obese patients undergoing gastric bypass surgery. By analyzing individual fat cells, the researchers hope their efforts will lead to new discoveries that will enable physicians to be able to predict who will and who will not respond to the procedure.

Those who most likely will not respond to the surgery (currently a significant minority of patients) could then be prescribed tailored medications to help promote weight loss.

“We are essentially changing the way we look at fat,” says Petricoin. “We now know that fat is an active organ that participates in the body’s disease processes. Using proteomics, which is unique in that it studies individual proteins, we can better predict patient outcomes and use that information to tailor individual therapies that we know a patient will respond to.

“While genomics is the information archive of the cell, it’s the proteins that do all of the work.”

Willpower and Environment Hidden Key to Permanent Weight Loss

Farrouhk Alemi
Farrokh Alemi

Did you ever wonder why some manage to lose weight with little or no effort, while the majority of Americans struggle daily with this oftentimes frustrating challenge?

According to Farrokh Alemi, professor in Mason’s Department of Health Administration and Policy in the College of Health and Human Services, genetics are no excuse.

“Certainly genes matter, but they are not the entire picture. A close examination shows that environment matters most. In other words, there is something in the way people have arranged their lives that makes them fit.”

Alemi details such success stories as a woman who lost weight simply by raising the height of her desk – thus requiring her to stand – in his new book, “A Thinking Person’s Weight Loss & Exercise Program.”

He focuses on how people can develop their willpower, which “everyone can have, because it is crafted out of daily routines,” and make strategic changes to their environment so that weight loss and exercise become inevitable.

Nutrition Education Critical to Adolescent Weight Loss

With obesity plaguing one out of five American children, particularly in low-income neighborhoods, the need for nutrition education is greater than ever.

Lisa Pawloski
Lisa Pawloski

Lisa Pawloski, associate professor and chair of the Department of Global and Community Health in the College of Health and Human Services, is part of a team of researchers working to reduce obesity in children in Washington, D.C., public schools by increasing children’s knowledge and behaviors regarding nutritious foods.

“Unfortunately, these kids truly have an uphill battle to combat obesity,” she says. “I am an advocate of nutrition education programs because what people tend to forget is that eating healthy is not in our genetic code; rather, it is a learned behavior. Our genetics provide us with the basic template that signals hunger cues, encouraging us to eat, but not encouraging us to necessarily eat the right foods.”

Pawloski’s obesity research has taken her around the world, where she has studied how obesity affects even the poorest countries. Time spent in Mali, West Africa, in 1997 revealed a major problem with undernutrition in young girls, but a more recent look at body mass index data suggests that the problem is quickly shifting to one of obesity – in a country where there are no McDonald’s, KFC’s or Starbucks.

That indicates to Pawloski there is something beyond the spread of Western culture that may be contributing to the problem, perhaps related to the fact that highly nutrient-dense foods are much more expensive than highly-refined, low nutrient-dense foods.

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