CHICAGO, IL—In spite of billions of dollars spent and decades of research, scientists at the University of Chicago said Monday that the scientific community is no closer to finding a cure for the potentially fatal disease of obesity.
"The obesity epidemic in this country has public-health authorities panicking, and with good reason," said Dr. Seong-Hun Kim, a research associate at the university's department of neurobiology, pharmacology, and physiology. "According to the latest government statistics, 30.6 percent of the adult population and 16.5 percent of children under 19 are obese. As researchers, we feel the same sort of helplessness that many victims of obesity feel."
"Basically, the clock continues to tick as we search for that golden key that will give every American a chance at a healthy, normal life," Kim added.
Many obesity sufferers have expressed frustration over the medical community's inability to cure them.
"I came down with obesity two years after I got married," 41-year-old Oklahoma City resident Fran Torley said. "I know it was hard for my husband to watch me suffer from this disease. When he caught obesity a year later, he got so depressed, he couldn't do anything but sit on the couch. Some days, we sit and watch television from dawn till dusk, hoping for news of a breakthrough."
Kim said he sees no cure on the horizon.
"Each year that we don't have a cure for this dreaded condition, another 300,000 Americans die of obesity-related health problems—hypertension, stroke, heart attack, diabetes," Kim said. "I wish to God there were something I could give these people that would make the obesity go away, but so far, there is no pill that can do that safely and effectively."
Kim said the prescription drugs currently indicated in the treatment of obesity, as well as a host of over-the-counter products, have been shown to produce limited results.
"Even when individuals find success with a certain drug or plan, it often fails to work in the long term," Kim said. "Sometimes, a treatment plan that works for a handful of people will fail to help anyone else. It's very frustrating. As evinced by the widespread nature of the problem, scientists aren't doing enough for these poor overweight people."
Kim's research group has tried to pinpoint the genetic, environmental, and psychological factors that might indicate a susceptibility to obesity.
"For example, we know that obesity tends to run in families," Kim said. "But we have yet to pinpoint exactly what it is that causes, say, the Smith family to splash about their backyard pool blissfully unaffected while, just over the fence, the Jones family languishes 30 percent overweight on their barbecue deck."
Marge Hampton is an obese American who has responded to the epidemic by trying to raise awareness and money for obesity research. In May, Hampton coordinated the Obesity Awareness Five-Mile Fun Ride, which led participants on a motor tour of Chicago's waterfront parks, and she orchestrated an obesity-awareness bake sale last month.
"We used to think obesity was a condition that only affected people with glandular problems, but health officials are now seeing just how widespread the epidemic is," Hampton said. "There's a myth that obese people don't want to change. They do—they just lack the information about how to do it quickly and easily."
Kim's research team has explored preventative measures.
"It would be wonderful if we could find some way to prevent individuals from getting this horrible condition in the first place, perhaps with something akin to a vaccine or a flu shot," Kim said. "We've pursued every avenue—pills, topical creams, nutritional shakes, even holistic cures like vitamin regimens and massage—but nothing has worked."
While others might have been discouraged by failure, Kim has intensified his efforts.
"I'm in the lab day and night," Kim said. "The other researchers will say 'Come have dinner with us,' but I'm so busy that I have to just grab some yogurt from the vending machine. I'm just too busy running over to the research facility on the west side of campus or carrying samples to the lab up on the fourth floor. I've lost 20 pounds since starting this project in January."
Even though he expressed concern about his recent weight loss, Kim said he will continue his work unabated.
"I can't worry about me right now; finding a cure for obesity is far too important," Kim said. "And, honestly, I feel better than I've felt in years. My work, although difficult, is energizing. I can't turn my back on my research while, all around me, Americans are dropping like enormous flies."