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Updated 11:00 AM January 9, 2006




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New center focuses on science of obesity,
weight gain and metabolism

As millions of Americans try to keep their New Year's resolutions to lose weight, eat better or exercise more, the Medical School is launching a new center that may help explain why so many resolutions fail, while others succeed.

The Metabolomics and Obesity Center will explore the science behind weight gain and loss, through molecular-level research on how the body breaks down and uses food, and how metabolism varies among individuals.

It will bring together physicians and basic science researchers from across campus and provide scientific tools to help them carry out experiments. It also will help launch new research projects by granting seed funding; help train new scientists specializing in metabolic research; and enable scientific findings to be turned into practical information that can be used to help overweight and obese people.

Two-thirds of Americans, including an increasing number of children, are overweight or obese—setting the stage for obesity-related illnesses from diabetes and heart disease to stroke, cancer, and bone and joint problems.

"Obesity is a huge public health challenge, but also a major scientific challenge," says center director and metabolism researcher Dr. Charles Burant. "We still don't understand why the same food intake can lead to weight gain in one person but not another, nor why diabetes develops in some overweight people but not others.

"We hope to accelerate progress in understanding weight gain, weight loss and metabolism at the most basic levels, and to help translate that understanding to clinical practice," says Burant, an associate professor in the Metabolism, Endocrinology and Diabetes division of the Department of Internal Medicine, and in the Department of Molecular & Integrative Physiology. He also has an appointment in the Division of Kinesiology.

One of the center's priorities is to explore the metabolome: the collection of small molecules (metabolites) created by the breakdown of food to be used or stored by the body. The center will allow scientists to measure metabolites in blood, tissue, cells and more, giving them the means to understand how those levels change in response to changing food and nutrient intake—and how that change varies from person to person.

Another goal of the center is to foster research on the metabolic phenotypes of both humans and research animals. By making specific measurements of how individuals' bodies use food or specific nutrients, researchers involved with the center will be able to tell how specific genes and underlying characteristics influence the tendency to gain weight.

Burant notes that a key part of this effort will be cooperation among researchers from many areas of U-M, and the leveraging of existing facilities.

For example, the center will involve Jeff Horowitz, assistant professor in the Division of Kinesiology, who studies human weight gain and metabolism using facilities such as the U-M Health System General Clinical Research Center.

Together with the Michigan Diabetes Research and Training Center, headed by Dr. William Herman, the Stefan S Fajans/Glaxo Smith Kline Professor of Diabetes and professor of internal medicine, the center will develop facilities where researchers can perform sophisticated measurements on animals that have been bred or genetically engineered as models of human metabolic characteristics.

In addition to the two core efforts for human and animal phenotyping, and the metabolomics effort, the center also will involve two other areas of emphasis: systems biology and clinical research.

The systems biology effort will work with the National Center for Integrative Biomedical Informatics, based at U-M, to harness computing power in a way that can bring together information on proteins, genes, metabolites and human or animal phenotypes related to metabolism and weight.

The clinical research effort will involve physicians and others who treat both adults and children for obesity and related disorders.

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