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: The Thrill of Discovery
Jeff Friedman: I’ve had the experience of results I was excited about any number of times. I can’t recall precisely the number. I must say that other than in one case in particular I’m not sure anyone else on the planet shared my level of excitement, but that’s okay. It’s sort of a personal enterprise. The one moment, however, that was pretty exhilarating was the moment at which we- I realized we had cloned the ob gene which encodes this hormone leptin, a fat hormone that plays an important role in regulating weight
Question: How did you name the gene?
Jeff Friedman: Well, it’s interesting you should ask this because I too have been interested in moments of discovery and have had the good fortune to know a lot of very famous scientists over the years and always made it a point of asking them about their moments of discovery. One such scientist is a fellow named Roger Guillemin who won the Nobel Prize for defining hypothalamic releasing factors. These are pituitary factors that control secretion of pituitary hormones. And I spoke to Roger at some length walking on a beach at some boondoggle in the Caribbean listening to him tell me about the moments when he realized he had something of substance. So Roger and I had a rapport and he listened to a presentation I gave long before the ob gene had been cloned talking about why I thought this was going to be a hormone and how we were going to try to confirm that. I get back to my lab sometime after that. I get a letter from Roger. It was either before the days of e-mail or Roger had not yet adopted e-mail. I can’t remember which. And in the letter, which I think I may have recovered--I think I have recovered it from Roger since--he says to me- he writes that he didn’t think I should be referring to the ob gene as an obesity gene, which was the moniker under which it often went. He said, “The normal gene keeps you thin. Only when defective do you become obese so the gene is not really an obesity gene. I suggest you call it a lepto gene, lepto being derived from the Greek root leptos for thin.” And so when we found the gene it was our prerogative to name the encoded protein, genes encoded for proteins, and so the name had stuck with me I was sort of playing with a number of names but ultimately it seemed to me leptin had many of the features we were looking for and was far preferable to the name that my brother had proposed, which was friedmone.