Meeting News

ADA award winner discusses future of diabetes, obesity research

The world we live in has been shaped by historic figures from across the ages. Whether it is the political, cultural or scientific landscape, some of these names loom larger than others. However, we often don’t stop to consider that, at one point, these people did not know all that they needed to achieve success. The same can be said of Rudolph Leibel, MD, who had to face his own gap in knowledge about pediatric obesity to build the foundations of his career in diabetes and obesity research. That move put him on the path to becoming an expert in the field and earned him the Albert Renold Award from the American Diabetes Association in June.

Rudolph Leibel

Leibel, who serves as the Christopher J. Murphy Memorial professor of diabetes research, head of the division of molecular genetics and the co-director of the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center at Columbia University, spoke with Endocrine Today about recognizing the need to learn more, his research in obesity etiology and some of the historic figures he most admires, including Abraham Lincoln, Sir Isaac Newton and William Shakespeare.

What was the defining moment that led you to your field?

Leibel: An encounter about 40 years ago with a severely obese 8-year-old and his mother, during which it became apparent to both the mother and me that I knew very little that could be of help to her son. She pointed this out to me in very colorful language. Ruminating later on the mother’s opinion, I concluded that she was right and that if I wanted to help obese patients, I needed to generate some of the research that might advance the field. Within a year, I had resigned my assistant professorship and accepted what amounted to a postdoctoral research position at Rockefeller University.

What area of research most interests you right now and why?

Leibel: The role of structural and functional derangements of the primary cilium in the etiology of susceptibility to “common” obesity. Mutations of components of the cilium play a role in monogenic obesities, such as Bardet-Biedl and Alstrom’s, but we have data suggesting a role in much more prevalent forms of obesity.

What was the last book you read and what did you think of it?

Leibel: The Fiery Trial by Eric Foner. This book follows the development of Abraham Lincoln’s thoughts on race and slavery from his early career as an attorney, through his presidency. Contrary to popular perceptions, Lincoln’s ideas on slavery evolved in a manner that led him to a position quite different from his earlier conceptions and “solutions.” This evolution, and the persistence and political skill with which he moved in the direction of his revised thoughts, is an inspirational example of the heights which “the better angels of our nature” are capable of reaching.

Whom do you most admire and what would you ask that person if you had 5 minutes with him/her?

Leibel: It is hard to pick only one, but I would certainly like to have a chance to talk to Isaac Newton or William Shakespeare. From Newton, I would like to hear his response to Einstein’s special relativity — that time is not a constant in inertial systems — and general relativity, re-deriving Newton’s equations regarding gravity from an entirely different physical and mathematical perspective; and also predicting the precession of Mercury’s orbit that remained unaccounted for by Newton’s equations. From Shakespeare, I would like to know, among other things, how as a relatively young man he got into the head of Lear.

Have you ever been fortunate enough to witness or to have been part of medical history in the making?

Leibel: I participated in the molecular cloning of the leptin gene and in the identification of leptin’s receptor. These discoveries have enabled important advances in the understanding of the neurobiology of the regulation of body weight. I also was fortunate to play a role in the discovery of the cellular bases for the inflammation associated with adiposity, and in the metabolic consequences of the maintenance of reduced body weight.

What do you think will have the greatest influence on your field in the next 10 years?

Leibel: Understanding of the molecular neurobiology of circuits and molecules that cause individuals to ingest calories beyond those needed for ongoing metabolic processes; that is, eating in the absence of hunger or beyond satiety. This is the behavioral phenotype that accounts for most of the obesity epidemic.

What’s up next for you?

Leibel: The use of stem cell-derived hypothalamic neurons to elucidate the molecular pathogenesis of novel monogenic — and ultimately more prevalent — forms of human obesity. – by Phil Neuffer

The world we live in has been shaped by historic figures from across the ages. Whether it is the political, cultural or scientific landscape, some of these names loom larger than others. However, we often don’t stop to consider that, at one point, these people did not know all that they needed to achieve success. The same can be said of Rudolph Leibel, MD, who had to face his own gap in knowledge about pediatric obesity to build the foundations of his career in diabetes and obesity research. That move put him on the path to becoming an expert in the field and earned him the Albert Renold Award from the American Diabetes Association in June.

Rudolph Leibel

Leibel, who serves as the Christopher J. Murphy Memorial professor of diabetes research, head of the division of molecular genetics and the co-director of the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center at Columbia University, spoke with Endocrine Today about recognizing the need to learn more, his research in obesity etiology and some of the historic figures he most admires, including Abraham Lincoln, Sir Isaac Newton and William Shakespeare.

What was the defining moment that led you to your field?

Leibel: An encounter about 40 years ago with a severely obese 8-year-old and his mother, during which it became apparent to both the mother and me that I knew very little that could be of help to her son. She pointed this out to me in very colorful language. Ruminating later on the mother’s opinion, I concluded that she was right and that if I wanted to help obese patients, I needed to generate some of the research that might advance the field. Within a year, I had resigned my assistant professorship and accepted what amounted to a postdoctoral research position at Rockefeller University.

What area of research most interests you right now and why?

Leibel: The role of structural and functional derangements of the primary cilium in the etiology of susceptibility to “common” obesity. Mutations of components of the cilium play a role in monogenic obesities, such as Bardet-Biedl and Alstrom’s, but we have data suggesting a role in much more prevalent forms of obesity.

What was the last book you read and what did you think of it?

Leibel: The Fiery Trial by Eric Foner. This book follows the development of Abraham Lincoln’s thoughts on race and slavery from his early career as an attorney, through his presidency. Contrary to popular perceptions, Lincoln’s ideas on slavery evolved in a manner that led him to a position quite different from his earlier conceptions and “solutions.” This evolution, and the persistence and political skill with which he moved in the direction of his revised thoughts, is an inspirational example of the heights which “the better angels of our nature” are capable of reaching.

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Whom do you most admire and what would you ask that person if you had 5 minutes with him/her?

Leibel: It is hard to pick only one, but I would certainly like to have a chance to talk to Isaac Newton or William Shakespeare. From Newton, I would like to hear his response to Einstein’s special relativity — that time is not a constant in inertial systems — and general relativity, re-deriving Newton’s equations regarding gravity from an entirely different physical and mathematical perspective; and also predicting the precession of Mercury’s orbit that remained unaccounted for by Newton’s equations. From Shakespeare, I would like to know, among other things, how as a relatively young man he got into the head of Lear.

Have you ever been fortunate enough to witness or to have been part of medical history in the making?

Leibel: I participated in the molecular cloning of the leptin gene and in the identification of leptin’s receptor. These discoveries have enabled important advances in the understanding of the neurobiology of the regulation of body weight. I also was fortunate to play a role in the discovery of the cellular bases for the inflammation associated with adiposity, and in the metabolic consequences of the maintenance of reduced body weight.

What do you think will have the greatest influence on your field in the next 10 years?

Leibel: Understanding of the molecular neurobiology of circuits and molecules that cause individuals to ingest calories beyond those needed for ongoing metabolic processes; that is, eating in the absence of hunger or beyond satiety. This is the behavioral phenotype that accounts for most of the obesity epidemic.

What’s up next for you?

Leibel: The use of stem cell-derived hypothalamic neurons to elucidate the molecular pathogenesis of novel monogenic — and ultimately more prevalent — forms of human obesity. – by Phil Neuffer

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