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The Big Puzzle

The Big PuzzleA Tufts scientist is looking for new ways to fight diseases like heart disease by unlocking the genetic code behind obesity.

Boston [12.17.01] One of America's biggest epidemics, obesity and its related diseases are expected to kill 300,000 people this year alone, making it second only to smoking as the biggest cause of preventable deaths. But cutting-edge research from a Tufts scientist may shed new light on the genetic connections between diet and obesity and diseases such as diabetes and heart disease -- helping scientists develop new strategies to fight the growing epidemic.

According to Tufts' Jose Ordovas -- director of the University's Nutrition and Genomics Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging -- the key to fighting the obesity epidemic can be found in a complex map of genetic mutations.

"There are many genes involved [in obesity and its related diseases]," Ordovas told the Boston Business Journal. "Every one of these mutations offer a greater percentage of information. It's like a giant puzzle."

Based on the pieces Ordovas already has assembled, dietary choices appear to play an important role in protecting people from everything from cardiovascular disease to prostate and breast cancers.

"Tufts University calls it 'nutrigenomics,' -- the study of how specific diets can adjust the risk for someone who is predisposed to a disease like cardiovascular disease of developing symptoms," reported the Journal.

Understanding how diet interacts with our genetic code is important to finding ways to treat obesity-related diseases, the Tufts scientist said.

"The idea, Ordovas said, is that disease is becoming more prevalent because genes are under increasing 'stress,' thanks to a longer, sedentary lifestyle, with fatty foods and smoking," reported the newspaper. "Under such stress, mutations that predispose us to disease are more likely to express themselves."

While some scientists still view the causes of obesity as physiological, Ordovas says evidence from international populations lends increasing support to his beliefs that the combination of genes and diet play the key role in causing obesity.

"He said mutations that predispose people to obesity and disease are more prevalent in populations of other countries, like China, yet they don't develop disease as often as those living in the West because they are lean and active," reported the Journal.

But that may change with the spread of Western diets.

"[Ordovas said] with globalization, people living in China are eating and living Western-style, and there is evidence that disease and obesity are on the rise there," reported the newspaper.

Predicting that the obesity epidemic will continue to spread to other parts of the world, Ordovas has expanded his research to China, traveling there recently to compile more data.

"It is the major global health threat of the next 20 years," he told the Journal.

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