When Dr. Jeff Friedman followed in his father’s path to become a doctor, he entered a six-year medical program out of high school and received an M.D. at the age of 22. After a yearlong fellowship working in the lab of The Rockefeller University's Mary Jane Kreek, he fell in love with the science life. Today, using advanced techniques in neurobiology and genetics, Dr. Friedman has identified and characterized the activity of leptin, a hormone secreted by fat cells that balances food intake and energy expenditure. By studying leptin, as well as other genes that influence weight, Friedman hopes to eventually aid in the development of therapies to combat obesity. Dr. Friedman is a Professor at the Rockefeller University in New York City and Director of the university's Starr Center for Human Genetics. Lately, he has taken his search for fat genes to Kosrae, a small island in the Pacific where obesity is rampant. By analyzing DNA collected from all the adults on the island, Dr. Friedman hopes to learn more about why some people are overweight while others are lean.
Topic: Real-World Applications
Jeffrey Friedman: Well, I think my primary goal as a scientist has been to just learn as much as we can first about the elements of this system and now that we know some of the elements how it works. Of course, there is interest in using this information to develop new therapeutics and that can happen any number of ways. One would be to inject leptin and see if it has biological effects. What’s been evident over the last decade or so is that in some circumstances leptin has very powerful biological effects but in others less so, and so leptin as a single therapy for obesity is proven to be of variable benefit. More recently, there has, however, been some evidence that if you pair leptin with other agents you can substantially reduce weight and so there are clinical studies ongoing to test whether leptin might be part of a therapeutic regimen to treat obesity. I think in the longer term, however, the more we learn about how this system works the more- then the better able we’re going to be to intervene in the form of drugs that modulate the behavior of neural pathways that regulate weight. And so I think the future does put forth the promise of new treatments for obesity but I think there is an important caveat here, which is to ask what is it are we treating? I think there is a disconnect in fact between the way I think about this problem and the way the public might think about it.