Here’s an article in the New York Times about efforts to develop a vaccine against obesity.
Doctor Kim Janda of the Scripps Research Institute has devoted the last twenty-five years to efforts to developing vaccines for substance abuse and overeating. The vaccine against overeating would work by blocking the action of ghrelin, a naturally-occurring peptide hormone secreted by the stomach that promotes eating. Preliminary studies have shown the vaccine can reduce both food consumption and weight gain in both rats and pigs.
I just can’t understand the mindset that thinks this sort of thing is a good idea. Five hundred million years of evolution has endowed us with nervous and endocrine systems which tell us what our bodies need, and they work very well indeed. Ghrelin is the hormone that tells you when you are hungry. If you’re hungry, it means your body needs food, in which case I should think the sensible thing to do would be to eat. Isn’t the whole problem with obese people that they eat when they aren’t hungry? And if that’s your problem, doesn’t it make sense to start paying attention to your body’s signals, rather than trying to silence them?
Ghrelin promotes the production of anti-inflammatory substances in the gastrointestinal tract. It activates the synthesis of nitric oxide in the lining of the blood vessels, which in turn inhibits the development of atherosclerotic plaque. It also promotes the formation of new neural connections in the brains of rats, and enhances memory and learning. What will be the result of monkeying with people’s levels of this hormone? Maybe colitis, heart attacks, dementia?
But I submit there is even more at stake here. What is at stake is an entire world view. Am I the only one who is appalled by this vision of ourselves as beings who have no need for self-control, self-discipline, or free will? Just pump us full of the right drugs and we’ll do whatever our masters want.
We already have a cure for obesity. It’s called exercise. What people who successfully lose weight and keep it off have in common is this: sixty minutes or more of exercise a day. If that’s what it takes, then that is what should be considered normal. And if some individuals won’t do that, then I submit a big part of the solution to that problem is to accept there is no perfect solution to this or any other problem.
This project is a perfect example of the reductionist mindset that drives so much of biomedical research today. Admittedly, that mindset has yielded some successes: antibiotics, insulin for Type I Diabetes, and the identification of causes and cures of nutrient-deficiency diseases. But most of the diseases that plague modern man do not have simple causes and cures. I think it’s time to face the possibility that we have already picked all the low-lying fruit.
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