Vol. 17, No. 32May 21, 1998

Cooperative research

 Scientists focus on weighty subject of obesity

Carlos Plata-Salaman is a medical doctor, and Peter Gillies holds a Ph.D. in medical science, but when they first met in the biology department about a year ago, chemistry was at work.

"Because of his research interests it was a natural interaction," said Plata-Salaman, professor of neuroscience in the Department of Biological Sciences.

"I realized we had a lot in common. We really hit if off right away," said Gillies, an adjunct professor in the same department and director of general pharmacology at the DuPont Merck Research Laboratories in Wilmington.

These two scientists specialize in the study of obesity-its causes and methods of controlling the problem both through changes in lifestyle and through the use of drugs being developed for the 21st century.

Plata-Salaman and Gillies exemplify a growing trend in scientific research-the cooperative effort between academia and industry to solve major problems.

"These strategic alliances capitalize on the complementary strengths of academia and industry," said Plata-Salaman, a native of Mexico. "We work together, share ideas and collaborate in our research."

Gillies, a native of Canada, meets with Plata-Salaman every week or two, but, in between meetings, faxes and e-mails fly with ideas.

"Getting people to work together in these two types of institutions is really incredibly valuable. In this day and age, you need to be networking to leverage your resources," Gillies said.

Plata-Salaman earned a medical degree from the University of Guadalajara, Mexico, and doctor of sciences degree from Kyushu University, Japan, before coming to the United States in 1988 and taking a job at the University of Delaware.

In his research, he said, "I look at control of food intake by the brain and the cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying obesity. There is certainly a significant effort by the research community to understand the molecular basis for obesity, including the genetic or chemical changes that occur as the underlying reason why a particular person is prone to obesity."

But, Plata-Salaman said psychological factors, lifestyles, stress, disease, brain trauma and even social, ethnic and religious factors all can play a role in the weight-control problem.

"Preventive medicine is also most important," he said. "Eating habits and physical activity are directly linked to the accumulation of body fat." He said research in the next few years at universities and within the private sector "will open avenues for strategies to use for prevention, treatment and manipulation of obesity." Regarding his overlapping research interests with Gillies, Plata-Salaman said, "While I focus on the brain, Peter focuses on fat cells." Just recently, Gilles said, "scientists are starting to realize that parts of the brain communicate with fat cells and, in turn, fat cells talk to the brain."

Gillies, who earned a bachelor's degree in biochemistry and a doctoral degree in cardiovascular disease research from McMaster University, spent several years of postdoctoral research in the field of biochemical toxicology before joining the DuPont Co. in 1980. "In my job at DuPont Merck, I'm in the business of finding new drugs that meet unmet medical needs and controlling obesity is a major unmet medical need," Gillies said.

In recent years, some new anti-obesity drugs have been introduced, but some of them had to be pulled off the market due to unsuspected and dangerous side effects.

DuPont Merck is working on its own potential solutions to obesity "because so many people are left without effective drug interventions for their weight problems," he said.

Obesity is more than an image problem; it's a medical condition that needs attention, Gilles says. "There has been a shift, with people beginning to realize that obesity is not a lack of discipline, but actually a disease. There's a metabolic basis, and in the last couple of years, we have been getting a much better handle on the biology of the disorder."

In the future, he says, "there will be drugs that effectively reduce appetite and increase energy expenditure" that together will enable people to lose and maintain their weight loss.

"Success, if it comes," says Plata-Salaman, "Will be due, in part, to cooperative research efforts. I think our collaboration is a model of how academia can interact with industry and a nice example of how two basic scientists can find a common ground."

Plata-Salaman and Gillies say a major recent study, the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, concluded that about 32 percent of the U.S. population over age 19 is overweight. Researchers estimate that more than 300,000 people die each year from complications of obesity, including heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and stroke. According to current estimates, obesity will cost the U.S. more than $200 billion in 1998 for management of these problems.

Recognizing the problem is a first step in reducing the physical risks associated with obesity. Your belt may be a little snug, and you may have to switch to a slightly larger clothing size, but how do you know if you're really overweight?

There's a quick, easy, scientific answer to the question: the Body Mass Index or BMI.

To calculate BMI, divide your weight in kilograms by your height in meters squared. A kilogram is approximately 2.2 pounds. A meter is approximately 39 inches. Individuals between the ages of 20-29 are considered overweight when their BMI is above 27.8 for men or 27.3 for women.

To properly assess height-to-weight ratios and other risk factors related to obesity, see your physician, the researchers said.

-Phil Milford
Photo by Robert Cohen