Elmquist, Horton to collaborate for Feb. 8 President's Lecture

By Kristen Holland Shear / Jan. 22-31, 2011

Why do I weigh 30 pounds more than I did in high school?

Does the fact that I’m obese mean that I’m doomed to develop type 2 diabetes?

Why is bariatric surgery a viable option for my best friend but not me?

Drs. Joel Elmquist (left) and Jay Horton are two of the leaders of the Task Force for Obesity Research, which has grown from a core of two dozen investigators to close to 100 since its creation in 2004.

Though more people are asking these questions than ever before, researchers are hard-pressed to pinpoint a single cause or solution to the obesity epidemic. Currently two-thirds of adults in America are overweight or obese, raising their risk of developing maladies such as heart disease, diabetes, stroke and fatty liver disease.

In response, UT Southwestern has assembled an elite team of endocrinologists, neuroscientists, biochemists, geneticists, nutritionists, gastroenterologists, cardiologists and psychiatrists with one mission in mind — to develop more directed approaches to preventing obesity and treating the metabolic complications of this disorder.

The group, known as the Task Force for Obesity Research (TORS), has grown from a core of two dozen investigators to close to 100 since its creation in 2004.

Two leading members of the TORS group — Dr. Joel Elmquist, professor of internal medicine and pharmacology, and Dr. Jay Horton, professor of internal medicine and molecular genetics — will discuss their current and future obesity research efforts at the next presentation of the President’s Lecture Series. The lecture, titled “The Obesity Epidemic: Why is Your Brain Not Listening?” will begin at 4 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 8, in the Tom and Lula Gooch Auditorium.

As director of the division of hypothalamic research, Dr. Elmquist is trying to define the brain circuitry and molecular mechanisms that regulate body weight and blood glucose levels. The aim is to understand better how feeding behavior is regulated. Dr. Elmquist centers his research on the microscopic world of the hypothalamus, a critical region of the brain that maintains nearly all bodily functions, including hunger, thirst and body weight.

In the past few years, his team has defined a circuit in the brain that explains the ways fenfluramine, a component of the drug Fen-phen, suppresses appetite. Once hailed as a miracle weight-loss drug, Fen-phen was removed from the market more than a decade ago because it induced life-threatening side effects, including heart valve lesions. An estimated 6 million Americans took fenfluramine or dexfenfluramine, another weight-loss drug, before the Food and Drug Administration recalled both.

Dr. Horton, a noted digestive and liver-disease expert, focuses his research on understanding why fat accumulates in the liver and causes liver problems. In 2009, his team found that a protein responsible for regulating “bad” cholesterol in the blood works almost exclusively outside cells, providing clues for the development of therapies to block the protein’s disruptive actions.

Dr. Horton’s previous studies have shown that mice lacking this protein — known as PCSK9 — have LDL cholesterol levels less than half those of normal mice. Too much LDL cholesterol in the blood is a major risk factor for heart disease, heart attack and stroke because it contributes to the buildup of plaque that clogs the walls of arteries.

A native of Iowa, Dr. Elmquist received his doctorate in veterinary medicine, as well as a doctorate in anatomy and neuroscience, from Iowa State University. He completed postdoctoral fellowships in neuroscience at Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Dr. Elmquist was a member of the Harvard faculty before joining UT Southwestern in 2006.

Dr. Horton also hails from Iowa, having earned his medical degree from the University of Iowa Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine in 1988 after graduating from the university. He joined the UT Southwestern faculty in 1997, after completing a residency in internal medicine followed by two postdoctoral fellowships here.

The President’s Lecture Series was established in 2005 as a means for faculty members and senior administrators to express appreciation to the staff. The one-hour lectures are offered three times each academic year and feature a discussion in everyday language on the basics of research and clinical programs, along with the broad implications of those programs for health and medicine.

Overflow seating will be available in the lecture halls below the Eugene McDermott Plaza.

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Dr. Elmquist holds the Maclin Family Professorship in Medical Science, in Honor of Dr. Roy A. Brinkley.

Dr. Horton holds the Dr. Robert C. and Veronica Atkins Chair in Obesity and Diabetes Research.

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