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K-State professor investigating possible link between obesity and cancer

By Megan Wilson

 

George Wang is a bioscience detective on the trail of two very dangerous criminals: obesity and cancer.

George WangWang, an associate professor of human nutrition at Kansas State University, is the principal investigator on a study looking at a link between the two. His research centers around the prevention of cancer. Specifically, he looks at how to control your body weight to prevent cancer.

"For the past two decades, we have seen a significant increase in obesity rates in America," Wang said. "We have seen a clear association between being overweight and having diabetes, heart disease and other illnesses. Our research is looking at whether or not there is a similar connection between obesity and cancer risk."

According to Wang, the goal of the research is to understand the mechanism that controls body weight, which he said may lead to possibly finding a molecular target that will prevent cancer. His research has shown controlling your body weight does have an affect on growth hormones and growth factors.

"When you control your body weight, you interfere with the hormones in your blood's plasma. This interference may cause more interference in relation to the communication between your cells that tells them what to do, which is what we call cellular signaling," he said.

This communication effect is where Wang believes the possible connection between weight control and cancer prevention can be found. The results concerning cell signaling are significant, he said, because they show that controlling your body weight does affect how your body works at the level of cellular growth, which is important when it comes to researching cancer prevention.

If researchers can understand how what you do affects your body, they might be able to find a way for you to keep from getting an abnormal growth, which may or may not lead to cancer, Wang said.

What the research has shown about how people lose weight is also important, Wang said. Increasing obesity rates are a concern because obesity has been tied to increasing the risk of so many diseases, and only through understanding what works and doesn't work when it comes to losing weight will lowering obesity rates be possible, he said.

"What we were able to show through the first part of the research is that if people want to lose weight they either have to exercise more or eat less," Wang said. "If they exercise but increase how much they eat, they may not necessarily lose weight. This does not mean that they will be unhealthier, because they may turn fat into muscle through their exercise, in which case they would still weigh more but would be healthier."

Wang said he hopes that as the project continues he and the other researchers will be able to learn more about an etiological link between obesity and cancer.

"As long as we understand more insight mechanisms, we may be able to apply it to our daily lifestyle and change to healthier behavior for better body shape and cancer prevention in the future," he said.

The research project, sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, is being co-investigated by K-State's Richard Baybutt and Mark Haub, both associate professors of human nutrition, and Shie-Shien Yang, professor of statistics.

 

Spring/Summer 2007