Prestigious medal for Cowley's pioneering research

10 December

The experimental research of veski innovation fellow Professor Michael Cowley FTSE has been recognised with a prestigious science award from the Australian Academy of Science, and with the publication of a ground-breaking study in the prestigious journal Cell.

Professor Cowley, Director of the Monash Obesity & Diabetes Institute within the School of Biomedical Sciences, Monash University, was awarded the inaugural Jacques Miller Medal for Experimental Biomedicine recognising his work devising new drugs to treat obesity. 

The Medal, which will be formally presented to Michael at the Academy’s annual celebration of Australian Science, Science at the Shine Dome, in May 2015, is one of three new awards recognising scientific excellence, from researchers in the early stage of their careers to those who have made life long achievements. 

Among Michael’s many achievements, a ground-breaking study he has led, in which researchers from Monash, Warwick, Cambridge and several American universities discovered the link between obesity and hypertension was published on 5 December 2014 in the prestigious journal, Cell.

Inaugural veski innovation fellow and Academy President, Professor Andrew Holmes congratulated Michael and the other award winners and grant recipients.

“This year’s award winners represent an incredible list of Australia’s scientific achievements, across a huge range of areas, from medicine to maths and engineering.” he said. 

“It’s also fantastic to see three new awards being announced in honour of scientists who have made great contributions to our scientific knowledge.”

Michael’s medal recognises his discovery of how the body informs the brain about how much body fat we have, and how much sugar there is in our blood. Through his understanding of these pathways in the brain he has devised new drugs to treat obesity, and he has recently discovered why obesity causes high blood pressure.

The link between obesity and cardiovascular diseases is well acknowledged. Being obese or overweight is a major risk factor for the development of elevated blood pressure, and cardiovascular diseases. But it has never been known how obesity increases the risk of high blood pressure, making it difficult to develop evidence-based therapies for obesity, hypertension and heart disease.

Michael’s research, published in Cell, shows that leptin, a hormone secreted by fat cells, is significantly elevated following weight gain and in obesity, acts in the brain to elevate blood pressure.

Michael said the studies, which involved both animal and human experiments, including a unique cohort of patients lacking the hormone leptin or lacking the leptin receptor, used a number of new and unique technologies to link leptin in obesity induced hypertension.

“This study shows that a hormone secreted by fat (leptin) increases blood pressure, and explains the mechanism of the known link between obesity and high blood pressure,” Cowley said.

“Our data suggest that pharmacological approaches based on altering the effect of leptin in the dorsomedial hypothalamic region of the brain, could potentially represent a therapeutic target for the treatment of obesity induced hypertension and potentially could be exploited to alleviate the incidence of obesity induced cardiovascular diseases.”

Results demonstrated that both blocking leptin from producing its actions in the brain and removal of the leptin receptors from the brain were effective at reducing obesity induced hypertension. As much as 80 per cent of common hypertension is caused by excess body fat, and this study for the first time describes the mechanism by which obesity elevates blood pressure, and opens up new approaches to treat obesity induced high blood pressure.

Michael and his colleagues are now investigating whether blocking the leptin receptor may be a way to reduce the incidence of hypertension and cardiovascular diseases in obesity. 

The anti-hypertensive drug market is expected to exceed $40 billion annually by 2018.

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