Advanced Biochemistry Course Attempts to Unravel Complex Causes of Obesity

by Bill Giduz

Obesity is a complex, prevalent problem that I think people get weary of hearing about," shared senior biology major Jackie Henson. "But it is important to study because it's a growing problem which has serious implications for our country's health."

Henson and 12 other seniors took a new "Biochemistry of Obesity" seminar this semester with Professor of Biology Pam Hay. With a course prerequisite of basic biochemistry, they already had an understanding of biochemical pathways and metabolism, which facilitated complex, specific discussions of current scientific literature. All but two of the students in the class were taking premedical studies at Davidson.

Hay said the class analyzed professional material at a graduate level. "A course researching a complicated topic like obesity will prepare them well for their medical studies," she said.

Hensen commented, "I like that this seminar allows me to apply my understanding of biochem to problems that medical researchers and doctors are currently working to solve."

At the beginning of the semester each student chose an obesity-related topic to research. They then selected one peer-reviewed scientific paper on that topic which they assigned and discussed with their classmates. Topics included anti-obesity drugs, the effects of cortisol and stress on weight gain, and metabolic syndrome that can result in elevated triglycerides, hypertension, and type II diabetes.

"It has surprised me how multi-factorial the problem of obesity is," said Henson. "Diet, genetics and exercise significantly influence whether an individual is susceptible to obesity, but this course has taught me that there is so much more to consider."

For instance, Henson was surprised to learn that there is potentially a significant increase in obesity risk for individuals who were formula-fed as infants versus breast-fed. Another student project presented research that implicated certain bacteria in the gut as an obesity factor.

This semester's offering was the first time Hay ever taught the seminar. She anticipates more similar offerings in the future since biochemistry is now an academic concentration in the curriculum. The next advanced applied science seminar planned is "cancer biology," which will be offered next fall. As the name implies, the course will allow Davidson's advanced science students to analyze current research issues in cancer.

Hay noted that the field of obesity studies is growing and attracting a larger number of interested students. "It's a serious societal problem that many students going into the medical field will encounter," she said. "It's also a topic that I find interesting and it appears students find it interesting as well."

According to the American Heart Association 78.4 million Americans are obese as of 2013. The total excess cost of obesity to the American Health care system is an estimated $254 billion ($208 billion due to lost productivity secondary to premature morbidity and mortality and $46 billion in direct medical costs.) If current growth trends continue, attributable healthcare costs could reach $861 to $957 billion by 2030.

In addition to studying biochemical causes of obesity Hay's class also looked at the effectiveness of different diets on obesity. "We examined how effectively the body breaks down and uses different foods during the metabolic process," said Henson. "It would be nice to say that one diet is the answer, but again there are so many factors."