Obesity issues tackled at local level

By Jessi Savino

Scientists have figured out what college students have known for decades: smoking marijuana gives you the munchies.

This information was key in the development of a new drug to treat obesity, Alexandros Makriyannis of Northeastern’s Center for Drug Discovery (CDD) explained to students and faculty yesterday, as part of the new “Life of the Mind” lecture series.

The lecture, which President Joseph Aoun called “a celebration of what we do,” was held in the Alumni Center and presented medical, social and legal ways to fight America’s obesity epidemic.

Obesity is the most common nutritional disorder in the world and is a major health care issue, Makriyannis said. He went on to explain how scientists have used their knowledge of marijuana to create a drug that is essentially its opposite – instead of stimulating cannibinoids (hunger sensors) in the brain, creating the munchies, this new drug blocks them, thus decreasing the appetite.

The drug, called Acomplia, has been approved for the treatment of obesity in the United Kingdom and Denmark and is expected to be introduced in the United States within a year. But, Makriyannis said, there are side effects: nausea and vomiting affect a large percentage of the drug’s users.

Hoping to alleviate these side effects and thus increase both the drug’s popularity and its effectiveness, those at the CDD have been working on another version of Acomplia. Their drug, still in development, is currently referred to as AM4113, and has shown promising results in studies with rats.

Drugs aren’t the only way to fight obesity, however.

Jessica Blom-Hoffman from the Department of Counseling and Applied Educational Psychology, has been working on a project in Boston’s public school system that promotes eating fruits and vegetables among students.

In her portion of the lecture, Blom-Hoffman stressed “the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration in efforts to prevent and reduce obesity.”

Her program encourages physical activity while promoting fruits and vegetables in the classroom, the community and at home. Children would learn about healthy eating and at the same time learn how to use a mouse and keyboard in their computer classes.

“It’s fun and game-like for the children,” Blom-Hoffman said. “And it ensures a consistent format for information.”

Fruit and vegetable promotion at school also comes in the form of daily morning announcements about the “Fruit of the Day,” and “Caught Eating Fruits and Vegetables” stickers given out in the cafeteria.

A third avenue for treating obesity comes through the affected themselves, said Richard Daynard, professor of law at Northeastern.

“Two-thirds of US adults are overweight … and 30 percent are obese – twice the number of 30 years ago,” Danyard said. “What’s even more alarming is that, in that same period of time, childhood obesity rates have tripled.”

There are many factors contributing to this epidemic, and are many aspects to consider in finding a cure, he said.

Genetics, biology, culture, environment and habit are all contributing factors, he said. Parents don’t have the time or knowledge to ensure good eating habits in their children, and the schools have other priorities to address first. Also, treatments known to be effective are often only found on a small scale, and are unavailable to most of the population, Daynard said.

Daynard said he feels one approach that might currently have the best chance for at least short-term success would be to take an economic and regulatory stance: tax junk food, subsidize fruits and vegetables and build pedestrian-friendly communities, as well as ban junk food in schools, require clear calorie disclosures in chain restaurants and police deceptive health and diet claims.

Jennifer Shepherd, a sophomore journalism major, said she hopes Northeastern will hold more health-focused events in the future because they are beneficial to students.

“We’re in the middle of an epidemic,” Shepherd said. “Kids are getting fat and not exercising.”

Leave a Reply