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“Human Obesity: Science vs Stigma”,

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  • UserProf. Stephen O’Rahilly, Professor of Clinical Biochemistry and Medicine, Institute of Metabolic Science and Pembroke College
  • ClockMonday 02 June 2008, 19:45-21:00
  • HouseNihon Room, Pembroke College.

If you have a question about this talk, please contact Miss Clare Buckley.

Obesity is widely recognized to be a serious medical problem resulting in myriad distressing illnesses and shortening life expectancy. Uniquely, however, its sufferers are frequently stigmatized, derided and subject to social and economic discrimination. There is a widespread tacit assumption shared not only by the general public but also the medical profession that obesity is largely a moral failing, albeit one with biomedical consequences. This has interesting parallels with the public perception of causation of other illnesses in past times, eg epilepsy as a result of demonic possession and tuberculosis as a result of an artistic temperament. The past decade has seen an explosion of information regarding the mechanisms whereby body weight is controlled in mammalian species including humans. We have been able to establish that the molecules which control the process of energy balance in the more primitive species are also centrally involved in the control of those processes in humans and that defects in those molecular processes result in severe obesity in humans. Interestingly, the majority of those defects thus far determined affect the ability of a relatively primitive part of the brain, the hypothalamus, to sense satiation. It is highly likely that genetic variation involving the function or expression of those molecules underlie differential susceptibility of particular individuals to obesity under different environmental circumstances. The application of reductionist science to the problem of obesity provides the hope that our attitudes to this medical problem will emerge from the dark ages and that people with severe obesity will not only obtain useful therapy based on the knowledge of the causation of their problem but also will obtain the sympathy for their condition that is commonly afforded to other life threatening diseases.


1) O’Rahilly S, Farooqi S, Yeo G, Challis BG Human obesity: Lessons from monogenic disorders. Endocrinology 2003; 144, 9:3757-64 (review).

2) Farooqi IS, O’Rahilly S Monogenic human obesity syndromes. Recent Prog Horm Res 2004; 59:409-24.(review)

3) Farooqi IS and O’Rahilly S Genetics of Obesity in Endotext, Online Publication

4) Farooqi IS and O’Rahilly S Monogenic obesity in humans. Ann Rev Med 2005; 56:443-58 (review)

Biography: Professor Stephen O’Rahilly MD FRCP FRCPI FRC Path FRS F MedSci

Stephen O’Rahilly graduated in Medicine from University College Dublin in 1981. From 1982 to 1991 he undertook postgraduate clinical and research training in general medicine, diabetes and endocrinology in London, Oxford and Harvard. In 1991 he obtained a Wellcome Trust Senior Clinical Fellowship and established his laboratory at the University of Cambridge at Addenbrooke’s Hospital. In 1996 he was appointed to a newly created Chair of Metabolic Medicine and in 2002 to the Chair of Clinical Biochemistry and Medicine at the University of Cambridge. He is currently Head of the University Department of Clinical Biochemistry. His research has been concerned with the elucidation of the basic causes of obesity and Type 2 diabetes at a molecular level. His work has uncovered several previously unrecognised genetic causes of these diseases including some that are amenable to specific treatment. He has won many awards for his work including the Society for Endocrinology Medal, the Graham Bull Prize of the Royal College of Physicians of London, the European Journal of Endocrinology Prize, the Novartis International Award for Clinical Research in Diabetes, the Clinical Investigator Award of the Endocrine Society, the Heinrich Wieland Prize, the Rolf Luft Award and the Feldberg Award. He was elected to the Academy of Medical Sciences in 1999 and to the Royal Society in 2003. He has a continuing commitment to clinical practice in endocrinology and diabetes and the teaching of clinical medical students. He is Service Centre Director of the NHS Clinical Biochemistry Department of Addenbrooke’s Hospital. He has made important contributions to the development of infrastructure for clinical research on the Addenbrooke’s campus. He was the founding Director of Addenbrooke’s Hospital Wellcome Trust Clinical Research Facility (est. 2000) and led the University’s efforts to fund and establish the Institute of Metabolic Science (IMS). This Institute opened in 2007 and is co-directed by O’Rahilly and Dr Nick Wareham whose MRC Epidemiology Unit is located in the IMS . He has contributed more generally to UK clinical science through his Chairmanship of the Wellcome Trust Clinical Interest Group and service on the research committees of several charities. He is currently Chairman of the Medical Research Society and a member of the Council of the Academy of Medical Sciences, and of the Society for Endocrinology.

This talk is part of the Ivory Tower Society, Pembroke College series.

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