Obesity Research

Barbara Corkey, PhD

Professor, Research Gastroenterology
Q&A with Barbra Corkey, PhD

What is the focus of your obesity research?

The main gist of the work in my lab is to look at metabolic signals to try to understand causes of obesity and diabetes by studying cell systems, at a very basic level, not yet in animals or humans. We are trying to look at the thousands of things that have entered our food supply since the obesity epidemic began in order to find out whether they affect the function of certain cell types. For instance, we look at the storage of fat by fat cells, the secretion of insulin by beta cells, and the acquisition of fat by liver cells. So, if the normal function of beta cells is interrupted, and a person’s pancreas secretes too much insulin, this will lower his/her blood sugar. A natural reaction to low blood sugar is to eat. However, if this person is eating as a result of false signals, he/she will get fat. And that’s a problem.

If, at a cellular level, we identify agents that affect the functions of these cell types in this way, then we can make the prediction that it may do the same thing in vivo or in utero. This will lead to tests to see if that is correct, and if it is, we will work hard to eliminate these agents from our food supply.

When we hear about environmental agents as a possible cause for obesity, what does this really mean? How and when are we exposed to them?

These agents are additives such as artificial sweeteners and preservatives or emulsifiers that are found in our food supply, especially in processed foods, and may be the culprits for disrupting our cell system functions. There may be different susceptibility to these agents at different stages of the life cycle. Much new data indicate that the in utero environment impacts how a child and eventually an adult will develop. We don’t know yet if all of this is true, but if I were pregnant, I would be even more vigorously cautious about what I put into my body and go for as much purity as one can muster.

Is there an issue with the current focus on diet and lack of activity as the main cause of obesity?

I would say there is a dramatic over-focusing on diet and physical activity. It has been almost the only focus. And the reality of it is that it hasn’t done much good. There are two possibilities when something doesn’t work: either the approach is being used incorrectly or people are not doing what they should (in this case, eating right and exercising). I’m willing to believe that that could be true of some people, but I seriously doubt that all of the children who are now becoming obese are just bad. Instead, they may be responding to signals that we don’t yet understand.

With so few answers to date, what can we, as individuals and as public health practitioners, do to curb the epidemic?

I think that on an individual basis, one can pay attention to what one consumes. For instance, eat more fruits and vegetables, not because they are so healthy but because they aren’t processed, so they have less of these untested foreign ingredients in them. We can each do our own kind of experiments and see what works.

As public health practitioners, we need to spread the truth and identify what we really know and what we really don’t know. As long as we give the misimpression that we know what to do and that people are being bad and not doing it, we are contributing to the problem. We need to be honest about the fact that we still don’t know what a healthy diet is.

For More on the Topic Visit:

  • An article about Dr. Barbara Corkey’s life as a biochemist and her research on metabolism in a past issue of Bostonia.
  • Part of the HBO Weight of the Nation film series website, this page discusses the importance of research to the obesity epidemic as well as recent obesity research advances.
  • The American Public Health Association discusses “obesity genes” and their contribution to the obesity epidemic.
  • An article in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives about obesogens, a possible environmental link to obesity.