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: Science and Public Perceptions
Jeffrey Friedman: So most people in the public think of obesity as a cosmetic problem and less as an important medical health problem. I think the reason for that is partly obvious and partly less so. It’s in this moment in time less desirable to be obese than it is to be thin. Parenthetically, that was very different throughout the ages but here and now there’s a premium on being thin and it’s very obvious if you’re not thin. People can see it instantly. And so I think because of an unfortunate stigma that’s often associated with obesity there is a premium on looking svelte and looking thin and ignoring I think what are the health problems associated with obesity. I think that the treatments we should be thinking about should be directed towards improving health and the reason I emphasize that is that the amount of weight that people need to lose to improve their health is substantially lower- less than it would take to say normalize one’s weight. I think there are likely to be therapies that will allow the- or facilitate the amount of weight loss necessary to improve health, and I think that’s what our focus should be. I’m less sanguine about the likelihood or even the need to, however, reduce weight on the part of the obese to, quote, normal because I don’t think there is anything normal about weight. Weight is distributed among all of us as a continuum the same as height and many other traits that we exhibit