Creative Minds: Interrogating a Master of Disguise

Monica Mugnier

Monica Mugnier

When I volunteered several years ago as a physician in a small hospital in West Africa, one of the most frustrating and frightening diseases I saw was sleeping sickness. Now, an investigator supported by the NIH Common Fund aims to figure out how this disease pathogen manages to evade the human immune system.

Monica Mugnier’s fascination with parasites started in college when she picked up the book Parasite Rex, a riveting, firsthand account of how “sneaky” parasites can be. The next year, while studying abroad in England, Mugnier met a researcher who had studied one of the most devious of parasites—a protozoan, spread by blood-sucking tsetse flies, that causes sleeping sickness in humans and livestock across sub-Saharan Africa.

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Cardiometabolic Disease: Big Data Tackles a Big Health Problem

Cardiometabolic risk lociMore and more studies are popping up that demonstrate the power of Big Data analyses to get at the underlying molecular pathology of some of our most common diseases. A great example, which may have flown a bit under the radar during the summer holidays, involves cardiometabolic disease. It’s an umbrella term for common vascular and metabolic conditions, including hypertension, impaired glucose and lipid metabolism, excess belly fat, and inflammation. All of these components of cardiometabolic disease can increase a person’s risk for a heart attack or stroke.

In the study, an international research team tapped into the power of genomic data to develop clearer pictures of the complex biocircuitry in seven types of vascular and metabolic tissue known to be affected by cardiometabolic disease: the liver, the heart’s aortic root, visceral abdominal fat, subcutaneous fat, internal mammary artery, skeletal muscle, and blood. The researchers found that while some circuits might regulate the level of gene expression in just one tissue, that’s often not the case. In fact, the researchers’ computational models show that such genetic circuitry can be organized into super networks that work together to influence how multiple tissues carry out fundamental life processes, such as metabolizing glucose or regulating lipid levels. When these networks are perturbed, perhaps by things like inherited variants that affect gene expression, or environmental influences such as a high-carb diet, sedentary lifestyle, the aging process, or infectious disease, the researchers’ modeling work suggests that multiple tissues can be affected, resulting in chronic, systemic disorders including cardiometabolic disease.

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Obesity Research: Study Shows Significant Benefits of Modest Weight Loss

5% weight lossFor the one in three American adults who are obese, recommendations to lose substantial amounts of weight through a combination of diet and exercise can seem daunting and, at times, hopeless. But a new study should come as encouraging news for all those struggling to lose the extra pounds: even a modest goal of 5 percent weight loss delivers considerable health benefits.

In the NIH-funded study, people with obesity who lost just 5 percent of their body weight—about 12 pounds on average—showed improvements in several risk factors for type 2 diabetes and heart disease. They also showed metabolic improvements in many parts of the body, including the liver, pancreas, muscle, and fat tissue. While people who lost additional weight enjoyed further improvements in their health, the findings reported in the journal Cell Metabolism show that sometimes it really does pay to start small [1].

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Flipping a Genetic Switch on Obesity?

Illustration of a DNA switchWhen weight loss is the goal, the equation seems simple enough: consume fewer calories and burn more of them exercising. But for some people, losing and keeping off the weight is much more difficult for reasons that can include a genetic component. While there are rare genetic causes of extreme obesity, the strongest common genetic contributor discovered so far is a variant found in an intron of the FTO gene. Variations in this untranslated region of the gene have been tied to differences in body mass and a risk of obesity [1]. For the one in six people of European descent born with two copies of the risk variant, the consequence is carrying around an average of an extra 7 pounds [2].

Now, NIH-funded researchers reporting in The New England Journal of Medicine [3] have figured out how this gene influences body weight. The answer is not, as many had suspected, in regions of the brain that control appetite, but in the progenitor cells that produce white and beige fat. The researchers found that the risk variant is part of a larger genetic circuit that determines whether our bodies burn or store fat. This discovery may yield new approaches to intervene in obesity with treatments designed to change the way fat cells handle calories.

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What Is Obesity? Metabolic Signatures Offer New Comprehensive View

Silhouettes over an NMR

Credit: Adapted from Elliott, P et al., Sci Transl Med. 2015 Apr 29;7(285)

As obesity has risen in the United States and all around the world, so too have many other obesity-related health conditions: diabetes, heart disease, stroke, cancer, and maybe even Alzheimer’s disease. But how exactly do those extra pounds lead to such widespread trouble, and how might we go about developing better ways to prevent or alleviate this very serious health threat?

In a new study in Science Translational Medicine [1], researchers performed sophisticated analyses of the molecules excreted in human urine to produce one of the most comprehensive pictures yet of the metabolic signature that appears to correlate with obesity. This work provides a fascinating preview of things to come as researchers from metabolomics, microbiomics, and a wide variety of other fields strive to develop more precise approaches to managing and preventing disease.

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