Thursday, July 14, 2005

What Happened to Leptin?

Remember the obese gene that made such a splash a decade ago, with the enormous rats and the promise to cure obesity? The Boston Globe has an update on why we haven't heard much about ob/ob and its hormone product, leptin.

This is the short version: human trials of leptin have been disappointing, and Amgen does not allow other companies or institutions to use its proprietary knowledge to broaden the search for uses of the gene. But the consensus is that obese humans may have a lower sensitivity to leptin, so the search is on for ways to boost the brain's ability to 'see' what leptin is in the blood--it's usually elevated in obese patients. So keep your ears open for news about leptin-related therapies for obesity.

It's certainly true that there are social/environmental trends promoting an unhealthy lifestyle in Americans, and that obesity can be seen as just a marker of those factors. According to the CDC, "30 percent of U.S. adults 20 years of age and older - over 60 million people - are obese.
This increase is not limited to adults. The percentage of young people who are overweight has more than tripled since 1980. Among children and teens aged 6-19 years, 16 percent (over 9 million young people) are considered overweight."

Now there's a good case that if we treat obesity with leptin-sensitizers or some other medication, we're simply chemically compensating for an unhealthy environment. That's true, but not unprecedented. Antibiotics compensate for an environment where people share bacteria more readily than in the wild, and blood pressure medications compensate for an environment where people have more stress than in the wild.

Steering our lifestyle into more healthy habits is a worthy goal and should be pursued; but if medication can be developed to save/extend lives and improve quality of life in the meantime, it's hard to morally object to that.

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