OHSU

OHSU's Research to Combat the World Obesity Epidemic

OHSU's research to combat the world's obesity epidemic, which is being conducted at OHSU's Oregon National Primate Research Center, continues to receive extensive coverage in the press. In the past few weeks, news of our research has been highlighted in The New York Times, and on ABC's Nightline.

OHSU has launched this Web page to provide links to additional information and resources for those who are interested in learning more. If you have additional questions, feel free to .

Recent news coverage

General Facts About Obesity

  • Obesity is a serious problem in our country and around the world and the crisis is escalating.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that as many 1/3rd American adults are obese. The condition is also increasingly seen in children.
  • According to the World Health Organization, approximately 1.5 billion adults (age 20+) were overweight in 2008; of these, more than 200 million men and nearly 300 million women were obese.
  • Obesity is a risk factor for heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer and numerous other diseases.
  • Understanding the root causes of obesity is critical to being able to offer preventions, cures, or treatments to the millions of people who are struggling with this condition around the world.
  • In response to these troubling statistics, First Lady Michelle Obama made the reduction of childhood obesity her personal cause.

The Causes of Obesity

While we all know that eating too much and not exercising enough can lead to obesity that is a vastly oversimplified explanation. Obesity is a complex disease that involves several factors including:

  • Diet
  • Genetics
  • Socio-economic status
  • Food preparation processes

For the millions who are fighting obesity, it is not well understood why weight loss is so difficult and why weight often returns despite a much stricter diet. No doubt, all of us have witnessed a friend or loved one lose weight temporarily only to regain the pounds once again, despite their best efforts.

OHSU's Research

Studies in humans and nonhuman primates are beginning to uncover answers to many of the questions surrounding obesity. This information will help us determine how to prevent as well as treat obesity and its associated diseases. In addition, through animal and human studies, we are learning more about the genetic-ties to obesity. This information will help explain why even those who eat a balanced diet can become obese. It will also help us determine how to best fight the epidemic.

OHSU's research at the Oregon National Primate Research Center is also focused on understanding how the country's current high-fat diet will impact future generations. Our current eating habits impact the long-term health of our children; putting them at increased risks diabetes, heart disease and even mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety.  This research could change how we look at and treat such childhood diseases.

More information on OHSU's research findings and its impacts on human health (Published research papers)

Video: OHSU’s Kevin Grove talks about his lab’s research


Why animal studies?

Just like OHSU's large animal care staff, most people are animal lovers and have questions about the role of animals in this research. OHSU believes that both human and animal studies are necessary in order to fight the obesity epidemic. Here are some of the reasons why:

  • Past research has demonstrated that when humans take part in eating studies, they are not entirely truthful about their eating habits nor do they closely track everything they eat. Therefore human studies cannot provide reliable data when weight studies require an accurate measure of food intake. Animal studies in comparison can provide much clearer data.
  • As humans, several of our personal choices can greatly impact study results. For instance, many of us smoke, use alcohol or drugs (legal and illegal). All of these impacts can impact study results and cause research data to be flawed. Through animal studies, we can remove all of these interfering factors.
  • Safety studies must take place in a living species before a drug can be tested and eventually prescribed to humans. In some cases, there are alternatives to animal studies (cell culture studies or computer models). However, we simply don't know enough about the living body to test medications and treatments in humans first. Animal studies are required to bridge the gap between the lab test tube and the pharmacy prescription bottle.
  • Prior to FDA approval of medications for human use, animal studies are required by law.

Additional information about obesity

World Health Organization

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Web MD

Additional information about animal studies

Americans for Medical Progress

Foundation for Biomedical Research

Speaking of Research

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the purpose of this research?

The purpose of the research is to counteract one of the world’s most serious health threats: the current obesity epidemic.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity now affects 17 percent of all children and adolescents in the United States—  triple the rate from just one generation ago. America’s obese children are at an alarmingly heightened risk for elevated blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, and becoming obese adults. In addition to the human costs, the financial cost of childhood obesity is $3 billion every year. Therefore, obesity’s impacts on the country’s overburdened health care system cannot be ignored.

Research at OHSU’s Oregon National Primate Research Center is focused on understanding how diets high in fat and calories, which are common in America, impact the long-term health of children, putting them at increased risks diabetes, heart disease and even mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety.  The research could change how we look at and treat these diseases in children.

Why do you have to study animals? Why not study obese people?

As the The New York Times reported, human studies on food intake are almost impossible to carry out as they would involved 24/7 monitoring of an individual for a long period of time in their home environment. In addition, previous research has demonstrated that when human subjects are asked to catalogue their own eating habits, they do not provide accurate information (to state it more simply, they lie).

Animal studies are, therefore, much more beneficial for some types of obesity research.  However, it is critical that animal studies strike a balance. Animals need to be cared for in a humane manner while taking part in this crucial research. Note: Pets are also impacted by the current obesity epidemic, so animal studies will also benefit other animals.

Are the animals well cared for?

Yes. Animal care regulations are very strict in the United States and those who take care of animals involved in research often enter the field because they are animal lovers themselves. The vast majority of animals at the Oregon National Primate Research Center live in large outdoor group housing. Animals involved in research are frequently housed indoors during the period of a study, but this move indoors is accompanied by increased attention from staff, including behaviorists, to ensure the animals are comfortable and engaged.

Before, during and after participation in a study, our animals receive state-of-the-art veterinary care, compassionately and ethically delivered by personnel who, like most of us, care deeply about animal welfare. This commitment to the very highest standard of care results in our animals living nearly twice as long as their counterparts in the wild.

More about animal care at ONPRC

What kinds of regulations are in place to ensure the animals are well cared for?

The Animal Welfare Act is a large collection of laws that frequently is updated to ensure that captive animals are well cared for.  The United States Department of Agriculture enforces these laws via unannounced inspections. OHSU’s primate center posts these inspection results on its Web site. In addition, the National Institutes of Health, which funds the primate center system, requires very high standards of animal care. In addition, OHSU has sought and achieved higher standards than required by law by taking part in an accreditation process that is even more demanding than federal laws. 

We all know that eating too much makes a person gain weight. Isn’t the solution to this epidemic simple?

No. While we all know that eating too much and not exercising enough can lead to obesity, this is an oversimplified explanation. Obesity is a complex disease with many related health issues that are poorly understood.  Furthermore, it is not well understood why it is so difficult to lose weight once a person becomes obese.  In addition, new research is uncovering important information about how adult eating habits are affecting our next generation of children during pregnancy. Studies in nonhuman primates are beginning to uncover these issues and provide important answers for how to prevent as well as treat obesity and its associated diseases.