Thursday, January 12, 2012

Proof That We're Making a Difference.

I believe a certain amount of curiosity and/or skepticism lies within people not directly involved in the cancer medical and research fields.  All too often, I see posts or hear comments where people go as far as saying, "alleged cancer research," and imply that nothing is actually going on.  Thus, I wanted to share an excellent example of how the DFMC team IS making a difference in the fight cancer (and it’s hot off the press).  

Progress in Real-Time
Today, one of our esteemed DFMC physicians, Dr. Bruce Spiegelman, was published in the journal, Nature.  Yes… Nature.  In the research world, this is a big deal.  I know what you’re thinking- “people get published in journals all the time.” (heck- I have 4 published studies.) But, the thing you need to know is what journal you're published in, makes all the difference.  You’ve likely heard of Nature and that is exactly how you know that this is a big deal.

One of the more famous nature covers.

The Skinny  
Obesity has been estimated to contribute to the development of 10% to 15% of human cancers. That’s a lot when you consider that 1.6 million people are diagnosed with cancer each year in the US alone.  Hypothetically, advancement in this area, especially in the form of prevention, could result in 160,000–240,000 less cases a year in the US...  but I'm getting ahead of myself.    

Dr. Bruce Spiegelman’s work, supported by the DFMC team, has demonstrated that obesity causes many body-wide alterations in metabolism, hormone levels, and inflammation, and that these abnormalities may affect the development and progression of cancers. Understanding how obesity leads to these disruptions has provided new insights into the development of cancers in general and will lead to new therapeutic interventions. 

Dr. Spiegelman in his lab.

Specifics (kind of)
A potential new therapeutic intervention is exactly what today’s article in Nature discussed.  As explained by, “a hormone has been discovered that is secreted by muscles during exercise and boosts the amount of energy the body burns.”  As mentioned above, this finding obviously holds a great deal of potential in creating new anti-obesity drugs and thus, cancer prevention.  In fact, it holds so much potential that a “Boston startup company, Ember Therapeutics, has already licensed the technology and is working to develop a form of the hormone that could be used as a drug that would mimic some of the benefits of exercise.”  

The Science
One of the focuses of Dr. Spiegelman’s research has been answering questions about the formation and nature of “brown fat,” a type of fat that burns energy rather than storing energy. Spiegelman and his colleagues discovered that the hormone, which they named Irisin, after the Greek messenger goddess, triggers changes to ordinary “white” fat that makes them resemble brown fat and increase energy expenditure.  When they induced greater levels of the hormone in obese, pre-diabetic mice over a short period, they saw slight weight loss, increased energy expenditure, and improvements in insulin resistance, a risk factor for diabetes.”

Even without being a scientist, the difference is evident.

“It’s a hormone made by muscle, put into the blood, and with exercise it increases,” Spiegelman said. “It seems to embody some of what exercise is known to do, which is have an anti-diabetes, anti-obesity effect.”  Clearly, Dr. Spiegelman still has his work cut out for him and hopes to answer many more questions including:
  • How does the message sent by muscle to fat cells get translated? 
  • What is the cellular component (or receptor) that receives the message?

So Now What?
In the history of modern medicine, prevention has played a defining role (think life before vaccines - we've all played the game, the Oregon Trail).  Although Dr. Spiegelman's research will likely shed a great deal of light onto the development of cancers thereby developing new treatments, it will undoubtedly help the prevention as well.  Preventing or reversing obesity may be the ticket to lowering the incidence of certain cancers as well as other common diseases including diabetes.  

Needless to say, this is a major step in medicine as a whole and additionally brings to light the need for us to focus on our own health.  As mentioned earlier, Dr. Spiegelman and other researchers have demonstrated this undeniable link between obesity and cancer.  As it is still the beginning of a new year, I encourage you to take your health into your own hands and lower your risk of getting cancer by eating right and exercising.  You know you want to start producing more Irisin!!!   A special thank you to my Dana-Farber colleague, Jess, for discovering this article and passing it along to me so quickly. 

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