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Getting weight loss down to a science

Note: This originally aired on July 31, 2013.

Scientists are just beginning to learn how the body’s hormones are programmed to melt away fat. More hormones in combination with minor surgery may be the solution for the obese. 

Digestion is a complicated process, as pointed out by Dr. Kirk Habegger, who draws a diagram on a white board.

The Assistant Research Professor at the University of Cincinnati has discovered that two of the most promising hormones targeted for treatment of obesity and diabetes, may interact to promote weight loss. Glucagon, a naturally occurring hormone, promotes the melting of fat and causes the liver to release another hormone known as FGF21, or fibroblast growth factor. The interplay between the two may be key in regulating weight.  He explains his theory in greater detail in this video:

Erika Wattrick knows how hard it can be to lose weight. She started putting on the pounds after she got married and having kids. “I think I was really in denial for a while and the weight just stayed there. When I did go back to work I was what I’ll call a habitual weight watchers person. I would lose 25 to 30 lbs, plateau, get frustrated and quit and gain it back.”

And she still had 150 pounds to lose. Obesity runs on both sides of Wattrick’s family. On top of the extra weight she has Multiple Sclerosis. Wattrick now works for a bariatric surgeon and had the procedure known as the gastric sleeve a couple of weeks ago. Her stomach’s size is reduced to a quarter of its original size, kind of like a small skinny banana. With this new smaller stomach she feels fuller sooner and can’t eat as much. It’s a less-invasive option than gastric bypass which divides the stomach into pouches and rearranges the small intestine.

Dr. Brad Watkins of UC’s Weight Loss Center in West Center, performed the gastric sleeve surgery on Wattrick. He says, when it comes to hunger, doctors and researchers don’t know much about the body.“We know the drive to eat is a very powerful biological drive in the brain and in the body and both are very interested in eating and if it thinks for a second you’re not going to eat, it freaks out.”

He and others do know stretching the pressure receptors in the wall of the stomach turns off the desire to eat. The processing of the food is still somewhat of a mystery. “One of the theories, a fundamental difference between skinny and obese people is, with obese people it’s almost like their GI tract is too efficient. There are fewer nutrients getting to the lower small intestine. So, they’ve looked at instilling food lower in the intestine as a potential weight loss mechanism. They’re also doing work with bile salts and bile salt absorption.”

Kirk Habegger is focusing on the hormones.  Researchers injected natural glucagon into patients. It triggered the increase of circulating FGF21 within hours. The FGF21 helps in burning calories.

With some surgical procedures , like the gastric bypass, these weight-loss promoting hormones are naturally released. However, Habegger noticed less-invasive surgery, like the gastric band, putting a removable band around the stomach to limit intake, did not trigger the hormonal release. He theorized injecting hormones would make the surgery more effective.  He is studying mice with the band in combination with injectable hormones.

Erika Wattrick had the sleeve, not the band, but is interested.“I would definitely have to look more into it. I researched and researched online, in books, picking Dr. Watson’s brain for every detail. I think it might be a good option for people to do that instead of something that’s permanent.”

It’s unclear just how long people would have to take the injections after surgery. Clinical trials are expected in the next five years.

Ann Thompson has decades of journalism experience in the Greater Cincinnati market and brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her reporting.