Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Losing 11 pounds lowers prostate cancer risk

Study: Men who lost weight cut odds of getting aggressive form of disease

ATLANTA - Here's another reason for men to avoid packing on extra pounds over the holidays: A new study has found that losing weight reduces the risk of an aggressive form of prostate cancer.

After tracking the weight of nearly 70,000 men between 1982 and 1992, researchers from the American Cancer Society and the Duke University Prostate Center found that men who lost more than 11 pounds had a lower risk for aggressive prostate cancer than men whose weight remained the same over a decade.

Previous studies have found that obese men have a higher risk of developing aggressive prostate cancer. This study appears to be the first to indicate that recent weight loss can decrease that risk.

In the study reported this month in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, researchers analyzed the height and weight of the men in 1982 and 1992 and every three years after that until 2003. At that time, more than 5,200 of the men — more than 7 percent — had prostate cancer.

Among those cases, about one in eight had a form of cancer that was aggressive but had not spread to other areas of the body. The study's major finding focused on those aggressive cases, with researchers concluding that those who lost 11 or more pounds were 42 percent less likely to develop that form of prostate cancer than those whose weight remained the same.

"Whether it's exactly 40 percent, we don't know, but they lower their risk when they lose 11-plus pounds. We feel confident, at least in this population, that was real," said lead researcher Dr. Carmen Rodriguez.

More than seven times as many men whose weight remained the same developed aggressive prostate cancer compared to those who lost 11 or more pounds.

"No significant associations" were found regarding the effect of weight gain or loss on the most severe forms of prostate cancer, those that spread throughout the body, the study said.

The number studied was small, the researchers acknowledged, because fewer than 15,000 men lost weight over the time period, and only 1,000 of those developed some form of prostate cancer.

The 69,991 participants were part of a bigger cancer society study of 1.2 million Americans that began in 1982.

Rodriguez said men should avoid putting on extra weight as they get older.

"The main message for men is to not get overweight. If they are overweight, that's another reason to try to lose weight, just to decrease the risk for prostate cancer," said Rodriguez, who works for the Atlanta-based cancer society.

Other than skin cancer, prostate cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer for men, and about one in six will get it during his lifetime. It is the second leading cause of cancer death for U.S. men.

The study is considered the first of its kind to examine the role of weight change in the development of prostate cancer, said Dr. Ronald Ennis, director of radiation oncology at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York, who was not involved in the study.

"This is one of the best studies" examining the role of weight on prostate cancer, Ennis said. "It does seem to be true that if you are overweight, you are at risk of getting more aggressive forms of prostate cancer and if you lose weight, you can decrease the risk."

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Friday, December 22, 2006

Exercise, diet reduce fatty liver in obese teens

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Efforts to help obese children become more active and eat better can help reduce the amount of fatty tissue in their livers.

Known medically as nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, this condition is becoming increasingly common as the prevalence of obesity increases, Dr. Ana R. Damaso and colleagues from the Federal University of Sao Paulo in Brazil note in their report. There are currently no drugs available to reverse fatty liver disease, which can progress to cirrhosis, even among young patients, the doctors add.

They set out to determine whether a 12-week program including nutrition education and two one-hour exercise sessions per week would have any effect on fatty liver in a group of 73 obese teens.

At the study's outset, 52 percent had fatty liver disease on the right side of the organ, and 48 percent had fatty liver on the left side. After the program, the prevalence of fatty liver disease on both sides fell significantly to 29 percent.

After the intervention, obese teens had less fat surrounding their abdominal organs and, on average, their weight and body mass index (BMI) were reduced; 48 percent lost weight, while 48 percent maintained their weight and 4 percent gained weight.

One important aspect of the findings, Damaso and colleagues point out, is how common fatty liver disease is among obese adolescents. There is evidence that gradual weight loss is the best way to reduce fatty liver disease, they add, while sudden, large-scale weight loss may actually worsen liver function and lead to liver failure.

Additional studies are needed, they conclude, to investigate the long-term effectiveness of lifestyle interventions and cholesterol-lowering drugs in fighting fatty liver disease.

SOURCE: European Journal of Gastroenterology & Hepatology, December 2006.

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Friday, December 15, 2006

Obesity Cited Number-One Kids' Health Issue: Americans Split on Who's Responsible

Newswise — Obesity or being overweight is seen as the most important health issue for U.S. children, according to a new poll commissioned by Research!America and The Endocrine Society. More than a quarter of Americans (27 percent) named obesity as the top health issue for kids, followed by lack of health care/insurance (16 percent) and nutrition/unhealthy diet (9 percent).

Americans are divided on whether addressing obesity is an individual or societal issue. According to the poll, 52 percent think obesity is a public health issue that society should help solve; 46 percent say it is a private issue that people should deal with on their own. When asked who should be responsible in addressing obesity, Americans say it should be an individual and community effort. They say responsibility to help address obesity lies to some or a great extent with parents (98 percent agree), individuals (96 percent), schools (87 percent), health care providers (84 percent), the food industry (81 percent) and government (67 percent).

More than half (57 percent) of Americans say most adults in the United States are overweight or obese, and more than a third (35 percent) say most children are. Perceptions are close to reality: 66 percent of American adults (ages 20-74) are overweight or obese, although only about 17 percent of children (ages 2-19) are, according to the National Center for Health Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Clearly, Americans recognize the obesity epidemic facing this country and our children,” said Dr. Leonard Wartofsky, president of The Endocrine Society. “However, the poll shows that the public thinks we should address obesity as a public health issue to bolster the actions of individuals and families. Health care professionals and researchers need to help convey the importance of a stronger public health response to this epidemic.”

When asked about the most important health issue for all ages, 24 percent cited health insurance/health care costs, followed by cancer (15 percent), access to health care (11 percent) and obesity/nutrition (9 percent).

Other key findings in the poll include:

• Most Americans (92 percent) say their school required participation in physical education (PE) when they were children;

• 68 percent think PE is now required daily in elementary school, when actually fewer than one-fourth of the nation’s elementary schools provide daily physical education (U.S. Dept. of Education, National Center for Education Statistics);

• 81 percent say it is important for the U.S. government to invest in obesity research, and 84 percent say it is important to invest in public health and prevention programs to help reduce obesity among Americans; and

• 67 percent would be willing to pay $1 per week more in taxes if they were certain the money would fund research to improve health.

“Research is the answer to many of the health issues we face, including obesity,” said Mary Woolley, Research!America president. “Americans understand that and clearly want adequate funding for research that can improve their health and the health of their families.”

What Should Americans Know About Obesity Research

Research is attempting to determine the root causes of obesity and define the most effective measures to prevent and combat it. Pivotal research is being conducted to:

• Define the hormonal control of fat, carbohydrate and protein metabolism;

• Identify the hormones involved in appetite regulation;

• Examine and assess the genetics of obesity; and

• Unravel the control of lipids.

According to The Endocrine Society, most obesity is caused by an energy imbalance—consuming more energy than the body expends. However, there are many genetic, hormonal, and environmental factors that can affect this imbalance. In general, a patient should see an endocrinologist if:

• Behavior modifications, such as exercise and diet, are not effective for weight loss;

• The patient has an endocrine disorder, such as diabetes, that can be aggravated by obesity; or

• The patient has an underlying endocrine condition that increases their risk for obesity, such as Cushing’s syndrome or hypothyroidism.

Specialists in metabolism, endocrinologists are actively engaged in the research, management, and treatment of obesity and related diseases. Endocrinologists also study how hormones regulate appetite, metabolism, and energy balance. They also evaluate obese patients to determine if there is a primary reason for obesity; treat the medical conditions associated with obesity, including insulin resistance, reproductive difficulties, metabolic syndrome and genetic problems; and educate their patients and the public about obesity and its consequences

About The Endocrine Society

Founded in 1916, The Endocrine Society is the world's oldest, largest, and most active organization devoted to research on hormones and the clinical practice of endocrinology. Today, The Endocrine Society's membership consists of more than 13,000 scientists, physicians, educators, nurses and students in more than 80 countries. Together, these members represent all basic, applied and clinical interests in endocrinology. For more information, see and

About Research!America

Research!America is the nation’s largest public education and advocacy alliance working to make research to improve health a higher national priority. Research!America has been gauging Americans’ attitudes toward medical and health research for more than a decade. For more information, see

Charlton Research Company conducted the telephone survey in September 2006 among 800 adults nationwide for Research!America. The sample was proportionate to the country’s demographics, including age, geography, gender and ethnicity. The survey has a sampling error of ±3.5 percentage points.

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Obesity 'could bankrupt the NHS'

The rising levels of obesity could bankrupt the NHS if left unchecked, a British Medical Journal report warns.

Experts, including government A&E tsar George Alberti and Glasgow University professor Naveed Sattar, said obesity treatment took up 9% of the NHS budget.

But they warned this would rise as the number of obese adults rose from one in five to one in three by 2010.

They said action was needed by all of society and even recommended a helpline for people who bought larger clothes.

The number should be promoted on the labels of all clothes sold with a waist of more than 40in (102cm) for men, 37in (94cm) for boys, 35in (88cm) for women, and 31in (80cm) for girls.

Professor Sattar, an expert in metabolic medicine, said research had linked obesity to a range of diseases and disorders, including heart disease, cancer, depression, back pain, diabetes and skin problems.

He said: "The problem of rising prevalence in obesity may get much worse - rates could climb still further, bankrupting the health system and leading soon to reductions in life expectancy.

"So we need to think out of the box, nothing that has been looked at so far seem to have worked."

He said while individuals "clearly have some responsibility for their health", the rest of society should also play more of a role.

He said the food industry should own up to the role they play through advertising and schools should be doing more to promote good diets and lifestyles.

He also called for obesity to become a core part of medical training and for public health consequences to be considered "for all decisions made in public life".

Some of the other measures recommended include:

  • Health checks, including waist and weight measurements, for all school leavers
  • Stricter planning regulations to only allow new housing complexes if they have sports facilities and green parks nearby
  • Fund obesity surgery for people with a body mass index of over 40
  • Tax processed food high in sugar and salt
  • Only allow new urban roads if they have cycle lanes


The government published a Public Health White Paper two years ago which promised to put the issue at the top of the agenda.

This came after a report by former NatWest chief Derek Wanless claimed unless the nation became healthier, spending on the NHS would increase by £30bn over the following 20 years.

Professor Anthony Barnett, head of the diabetes and obesity research group at the University of Birmingham, said the dire prediction could well come true.

"It is heading in that direction. The World Health Organization recently suggested 70% of deaths will be due to obesity related illnesses in the future.

"In the UK, we have one of the worst problems and that is and will continue to put a terrific strain on the health service."

And Steve Webb, health spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, said: "This staggering analysis must be a wake-up call for the government, which has failed to get a grip on key public health challenges such as obesity.

"At a time when an emphasis on prevention is needed more than ever, the NHS is slashing public health spending simply to make ends meet."

But Janice Bhend, a former editor of Yes magazine, which targets larger women, said the idea of a clothes phone line was a "ghastly idea".

"We need to come at it from a different angle but I don't think the fat police need to start telling us to phone a helpline."

She added it was enough to make people depressed.

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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

In addition to building strength, exercise benefits mental health

What if one therapy could help ward off addiction, depression, stress and even Alzheimer's, all the while keeping you slim and feeling great?

That mental-health ''treatment'' is as close as your own two feet - exercise.

''Exercise improves blood flow to the brain, it helps the body detoxify, it puts you on a better cycle of physical behavior, and it leads to decreased stress. It also improves thinking and mental function and decreases your tendency toward addiction,'' said Dr. Marc Siegel, an internist at New York University Medical Center and an associate professor of medicine at the NYU School of Medicine in New York City.

With each new study, experts are getting a better understanding of the intimate connection between health of the body and that of the mind. And exercise - the body's key method of staying healthy - appears to be crucial to mental health, too.

For example, ''there's evidence that exercise is maybe the best non-pharmacological antidepressant we have - studies have shown that it works better than some drugs. It's also a great anti-anxiety intervention,'' said James Maddux, a professor of psychology at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and an expert on the mind-body health connection.

Aerobic exercise such as running or swimming can lead to a healthy release of the body's natural opiates, neurochemicals called endorphins. These are natural stress-busters, Siegel said, but exercise's impact on stress goes ''way beyond endorphins.''

''Exercise is a ritualistic activity that redirects your energy,'' said Siegel, who is also the author of a book on worry and stress called ''False Alarm: The Truth About the Epidemic of Fear.'' ''Stress is a build-up of inactivity, of over-thinking without release,'' he said. ''But exercise gives you a physical release that diminishes that psychic frustration.''

Regaining control

For many people, exercise also provides a valuable sense of control over their physical health. ''It's that sense of a loss of control that can lead to stress,'' Siegel said. And physical activity - especially when individuals join sports clubs, teams or have workout partners - also increases socialization, which has been proven to boost mental and physical health and increase lifespan.

Regular workouts even can help smokers beat their addiction, researchers say.

For example, one study from Brown University found that women looking to quit smoking who engaged in a vigorous exercise program were more than twice as likely to have stayed away from cigarettes for at least one year, compared to women who simply took part in a smoking-cessation program without exercise.

The Brown team thinks that exercise may have helped smokers deal with the stress of quitting. As an added bonus, the study also found that exercising ex-smokers were able to stave off much of the weight gain typically associated with quitting smoking.

A fit, active body may even help reduce risks for Alzheimer's disease by improving cerebrovascular blood flow, experts say.

''There's no question that exercise improves blood flow to the brain,'' Siegel explained. One recent U.S. study found that seniors who engaged in some form of minimal exercise at least three days a week cut their risk of developing Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia by as much as 30 percent to 40 percent.

So, the advice from experts: Get out there, and get active.

''Exercise is clearly a discipline or ritualistic activity that you can use to break your cycle of worry and get on a path toward better health,'' Siegel said.

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Friday, December 08, 2006

Gold's Gym Announces Resignation of Gene Lamott

Gold's Gym International announced on 28 November the resignation of Gene LaMott, Chief Executive Officer. The company's board of directors has appointed David Schnabel to serve as the new CEO.

"On behalf of our entire board of directors, I want to thank Gene LaMott for leading Gold's Gym through one of the greatest transitions in its 41 year history," said David Schnabel. "We appreciate his efforts and wish him well in future endeavors."

LaMott began his association with the Gold's Gym family as an 8 unit franchisee in the late '80's & early '90's. He transitioned into corporate leadership at Gold's when he was named COO in 2000. He has served the corporation and the system as CEO since 2001. He helped guide the company through its sale to TRT Holdings in 2004 and oversaw the corporate move to Dallas in 2005. During LaMott's tenure the brand evolved substantially as the company saw increases in system sales, franchising and product licensing while corporate owned gyms grew to over 50 locations. He will be returning to his home in California to spend more time with his wife, children and young grandchildren.
"I am proud of what we've been able to accomplish during my time at Gold's Gym and feel that the company is well positioned for future growth," said LaMott. "After spending the past two years commuting back and forth between Texas and California, I'm looking forward to spending more time at home."

David Schnabel was the Vice President of Acquisitions for TRT Holdings and has served as a member of the board of directors for Gold's Gym International since its acquisition by TRT in 2004. He was responsible for sourcing the acquisition of Gold's Gym for TRT Holdings and has been actively involved in the strategic planning of the company since that time. Schnabel has worked at some of the nation's most recognized firms, including Goldman Sachs and McKinsey & Co., and holds both an undergraduate degree from Stanford University and a graduate degree from the Harvard School of Business.

"Gold's Gym is the greatest name in the fitness industry and there are tremendous opportunities in front of us," said Schnabel. "I look forward to working with both the GGI executive team and our franchisee leadership to maximize the potential of the Gold's Gym brand."

About Gold's Gym

Established in Venice, Calif. in 1965, Gold's Gym is the largest co-ed gym chain in the world with over 600 locations in 42 states and 27 countries. Gold's Gym offers the latest equipment and services, including group exercise, personal training, cardiovascular equipment, spinning, Pilates and yoga, while maintaining its core weight lifting tradition. With nearly 3 million members worldwide, Gold's Gym continues to change lives by helping people achieve their individual potential.

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Thursday, December 07, 2006

'Double Diabetes' a New Threat

The obesity epidemic is leading more people to develop type 1 and type 2 disease

By Dennis Thompson
HealthDay Reporter

SUNDAY, Dec. 3 (HealthDay News) -- Despite the flurry of public service campaigns and education efforts, the diabetes epidemic in the United States continues to escalate out of control.

An estimated 20.8 million Americans -- or 7 percent of the population -- are now believed to be diabetic. Of those, 6.2 million people have the disease but don't know it. And that doesn't include the 41million people with pre-diabetes, a condition in which blood-glucose levels are higher than normal but not high enough to be diagnosed as type 2 diabetes.

In fact, the epidemic has become so pervasive that doctors are now finding patients who suffer from both type 1 and type 2 diabetes -- a phenomenon known as "double diabetes" or "hybrid diabetes."

"It's mostly people who have a type 1 diabetes who become overweight and show the profile of a type 2, with obesity and hypertension," said Dr. Stewart Weiss, an assistant clinical professor of medicine at New York University School of Medicine in New York City.

Doctors and health-care experts are urging people to take the steps necessary -- basically proper nutrition and plenty of exercise -- to avoid joining the ranks of those already diagnosed with the disease.

Type 1 diabetes is caused by the body's inability to produce insulin, the hormone that ushers blood sugar -- called glucose -- to cells for energy. An estimated 5 percent to 10 percent of Americans with diabetes have type 1 disease. Type 2 diabetes results from insulin resistance -- the body's inability to properly use the hormone. Most Americans diagnosed with diabetes have type 2 diabetes, and excess weight and lack of exercise are big contributors to this form of the disease.

But, doctors are now seeing strong indications that double diabetes is a growing phenomenon. For instance, recent studies suggest that as many as 30 percent of newly diagnosed diabetes cases among children involve youngsters with both type 1 and type 2 diabetes.

Generally, double-diabetes sufferers will often look as though they have the more common type 2 version because they're overweight. But subsequent blood tests reveal they also have type 1 disease.

Double diabetes takes the suffering caused by the disease a step further, and complicates efforts to treat it.

Type 1 diabetics normally have to take daily injections of insulin to remain healthy, while type 2 diabetics require different medication and regular monitoring of their blood sugar. Doctors now are researching how to juggle treating both types of diabetes in the same patient, Weiss said.

"We have all sorts of medications that address different problems for different types of diabetes," Weiss said. "The question with double diabetes becomes, when can we use the different types of medications and what would be appropriate for different patients?"

Weiss suspects that double diabetes might be caused, in part, by type 1 diabetics who are taking insulin but haven't made the other lifestyle changes necessary to deal with the disease.

"One of the consequences of proper insulin use is weight gain," he said. "Often, patients who have not had a good understanding of how to eat are taking the insulin to cover what they normally eat."

The national trend toward unhealthy weight gain has spurred both the diabetes epidemic and this newer, more complex form of the disease, agreed Dr. Francine Kaufman, past president of the American Diabetes Association and head of the Division of Endocrinology and Metabolism at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles.

"It's mirroring the obesity epidemic," Kaufman said.

Diabetes can cause a number of complications that range from life-damaging to life-threatening. They include heart disease and stroke, high blood pressure, blindness, diseases of the nervous system, lower-limb amputations, dental disease and complications during pregnancy.

The best way to avoid these complications is to avoid contracting diabetes. A recent study conclusively showed that people on the verge of contracting type 2 diabetes prevented its onset through changes to their diet and increased exercise, according to the American Diabetes Association.

The federal Diabetes Prevention Program study found that diet and exercise actually worked better than some medications in delaying the development of diabetes, according to the association. Just 30 minutes a day of moderate physical activity, coupled with a five percent to 10 percent reduction in body weight, produced a 58 percent reduction in diabetes.

"People need to maintain a healthy weight and a healthy lifestyle," Kaufman said.

Weiss recommends improving diet by eating more vegetables, fewer starches and more lean meat and fish. "I like to say there's no medication that can overcome a bad diet," he said.

He also said people should not only eat healthier, but they should try to eat less, too.

"The problem really is overeating in general," he said. "The portion size put before us is very large, so portion control is the single most important thing. You've got to know when to say when."

More information

To learn more, visit the American Diabetes Association.

SOURCES: Stewart Weiss, M.D., assistant clinical professor of medicine, New York University School of Medicine, New York City; Francine Kaufman, M.D., past president of the American Diabetes Association, and head of the Division of Endocrinology and Metabolism at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles; U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta; American Dibetes Association, Alexandria, Va.

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Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Average U.S. Child Consumes Too Many Calories

Excess of up to 165 calories day --about a can of soda -- creates 'energy gap,' leading to overweight

By Randy Dotinga
HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, Dec. 5 (HealthDay News) -- It's no secret that American kids eat too much. Now, a new study provides some specific numbers that could help fight the obesity epidemic.

Over a 10-year period, the average child consumed up to 165 calories more than he or she needed each day -- the equivalent of an entire can of soda. And the fattest teenstook in as many as 1,000 calories more each day than they needed -- almost as much as two Big Macs.

Many American kids are suffering from an "energy gap," in which they take in more calories than they burn through growth and daily living. And the trend won't be easy to reverse, said the study's lead author, Dr. Y. Claire Wang, a researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health.

"Closing this energy gap in order to reverse the childhood obesity epidemic will require more than one single intervention," Wang said. "Just panicking or just screaming about how bad the epidemic has become is probably not going to be enough."

An estimated one in three American kids is either obese -- a step beyond overweight -- or in danger of becoming obese, Wang said. And one in eight or nine children is actually obese.

"A typical U.S. teen has gained an excess of 10 pounds over the body weight that is considered normal," Wang said. At the same time, teens haven't gotten taller.

In what is apparently the first study of its kind, Wang and her colleagues tried to determine just how much excess food children are consuming. They examined several federal studies and extrapolated the "energy gap" for different age ranges.

From 1988 to 1994, children aged 2 to 7 consumed between 110 and 165 calories more than they needed each day, resulting in a weight gain -- not related to growth -- of almost a pound a year, the researchers found.

The researchers also found that from 1999 to 2002, obese children 12 to 17 years old took in an average of 678 to 1,017 extra calories a day, amounting to an entire excess weight gain of 58 pounds.

The study is published in the December issue of the journal Pediatrics.

What can be done?

"Prevention is the most important thing," Wang said. Children "start having a small energy gap, then it becomes bigger over time. [We] need to start early and establish healthy habits. It requires more than just one strategy -- everyone has to participate, including the government, community, schools, families, and the food and beverage industries."

As for specific strategies, research suggests that cutting TV viewing by an hour a day could reduce food intake by about 160 calories, Wang said.

Karen A. Donato is coordinator of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute's Obesity Education Initiative, and she's familiar with the new study findings. She said the study shows that a relatively small number of calories over time can tip the energy balance toward overweight.

"Parents in particular need to be aware as their children grow that they not consume excessive calories from large portions and sugar-sweetened beverages, and that they remain physically active and not watch a lot of TV," Donato said. "A relatively small number of calories over time can tip the energy balance towards overweight. Doctors need to alert parents that they need to have healthy foods in their home and stay active with their children."

More information

Learn more about childhood obesity from the American Obesity Association.

SOURCES: Y. Claire Wang, M.D., Sc.D., research associate, Program in Health Decision Science, Department of Health Policy & Management, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston; Karen A. Donato, S.M., R.D., coordinator, Obesity Education Initiative, Center for the Application of Research Discoveries, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, Bethesda, Md.; December 2006, Pediatrics

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Monday, December 04, 2006

Trail of a Killer A Fitness Mogul, Stricken by Illness, Hunts for Genes

Study of Lou Gehrig's Disease
Pinpoints DNA Variations
Common to Its Sufferers


While water-skiing in Vietnam's Mekong Delta about two years ago, Augie Nieto fell several times. His muscular arms suddenly went slack and he couldn't haul himself up.

Mr. Nieto was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. About 30,000 Americans have the ailment, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. They progressively lose control of limbs, speech and the ability to breathe. Most die within five years.

The diagnosis was a shock to Mr. Nieto, who had built his life around exercise. As a young man he had founded what became one of the world's biggest makers of exercise equipment for gyms. "I remember wondering what I had done to deserve this death sentence," says Mr. Nieto, now 48 years old.

After an initial bout of despair, he decided to fight. He assembled a team of doctors, geneticists and ALS experts and gave them a mission: Identify the genetic basis of the disease in order to seek a treatment.

In just nine months, the effort has yielded some clues to a better understanding of ALS. Its findings will be released at an ALS conference in Japan today. Though the chances of halting Mr. Nieto's deteriorating condition are slim, researchers are already using the new understanding to study existing drugs, to see if any might help him and others.

Mr. Nieto is one of a wave of wealthy patients bankrolling a new technology to jump-start the search for a cure: machines that sift through DNA at lightning speed. They identify tiny genetic differences that show up more often in people with an intractable illness than in others. Finding these differences is a first step toward understanding what underpins a disease, which can pave the way for new treatments.

Using the new machines is costly, and government funding is scarce. Now, privately funded gene quests are under way in a number of maladies, including autism, Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's. The Cure Alzheimer's Fund, sparked by three families touched by the disease, raised $3 million for a gene search conducted by Rudolph Tanzi, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School. Today, says Dr. Tanzi, science has "the ability to find the key genetic players in a disease. It's expensive, and families are stepping up to the plate." In the case of ALS, at least two other privately funded studies besides Mr. Nieto's are in progress, at Harvard and Johns Hopkins University.

It's too soon to tell whether the gene approach will pay off. Some efforts have been disappointments. The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research paid close to $3 million to scan genes of Parkinson's patients. An initial report identified 13 gene suspects, but follow-on studies didn't confirm a role for them.

Some doctors worry that the research is too rushed and could even harm patients -- such as by prompting hopes that any discoveries will rapidly translate to treatments. Others say an approach focused on genes may overlook environmental and lifestyle factors that can also play a role.

Like Mr. Nieto's search for ALS genes, his quest to build a fitness business began with a personal problem: He was a chubby teenager. To keep the weight off and help others do the same, he opened a gym while he was in college in California.

Soon he learned about a stationary exercise bike developed as a medical device, which could crudely record the user's heart rate. He sold his gym after college, bought marketing rights to the bike, and drove 5,000 miles cross-country in a motor home trying to get health clubs to buy the yellow "Lifecycle." In nine months he sold just 11.

Unfazed, in 1980 he teamed up with the bike's developer, and they sent bikes free to 50 big health clubs. The clubs installed them, they proved popular, and Life Fitness of Chicago grew rapidly. In 1997 Mr. Nieto, who then co-owned the business with an investment fund, sold it for $310 million. He traveled the world indulging his taste for physical adventure -- fast cars, scuba diving and Arctic snowmobiling.

In mid-2004, he found himself struggling to lift his usual weights. After he had more trouble during the water-skiing trip months later, doctors diagnosed ALS. "Your first reaction is denial, then anger," he says. "Then you get ready to fight."

Mr. Nieto met with a several doctors and researchers in ALS, who had varying theories about it. He was given an antibiotic, which caused sun exposure to turn his skin several shades darker. He was prescribed the breast-cancer drug Tamoxifen, which gave him hot flashes. Neither seemed to help him.

Taking matters in his own hands, Mr. Nieto drew up plans for an ALS foundation, Augie's Quest, that he and his wife's family put money into. To raise funds for a study, he turned to the Muscular Dystrophy Association, or MDA, a group involved in more than 40 neuromuscular diseases and one of the biggest funders of ALS research. He wanted the project to have the attributes of an entrepreneurial business -- speed, efficiency and focus. His doctor, Tahseen Mozaffar, from the University of California, Irvine, worried that the 50-year-old MDA was "a top-heavy, centralized organization" that might not buy into a proposal from an entrepreneur.

Mr. Nieto traveled to the MDA's offices in Tucson, Ariz., in mid-2005 to present his case. "You've got to put a human face on ALS," he recalls saying. "I'm a brand guy." To attract funding, "you have to let me go through the transformation as an ALS patient in public, not in private."

The MDA agreed to help but didn't buy into everything Mr. Nieto had in mind, such as special access to research findings for big donors. "We have defined ways of doing things," said an MDA vice president, Sharon Hesterlee. "Augie wants us to do things very quickly. He's blown things apart" in speeding up the research.

A year ago, Mr. Nieto visited Translation Genomics Research Institute, or TGen, a nonprofit group in Phoenix that uses gene screening to seek targets for various diseases. A TGen senior researcher, Dietrich Stephan, told Mr. Nieto a screen could be done quickly. "After banging your head against the doors of academics, it was like a breath of fresh air," Mr. Nieto says.

A short time later, he was at a Las Vegas trade show getting an award for his role in the fitness industry. He persuaded the organizers to turn the dinner and reception into an ALS fund-raiser, and the evening ended up bringing in more than $1 million for ALS research. His foundation, through the MDA, offered $650,000 of that to TGen for a hunt for ALS-related genes. TGen matched the amount, and the three groups agreed to a deal in March 2006.

For the gene search, the team needed DNA from more than a thousand ALS patients. Doctors and medical centers with stored blood samples didn't give them up easily. Some worried about patient confidentiality, and others wanted a financial cut. Pressed by Mr. Nieto's constant urging for speed, the TGen team paid clinics $400 per DNA sample. In three months, it had 1,250 of them.

Human cells contain around six billion DNA "letters," dubbed A, G, C and T. The letters spell out genes, each of which tells the body to produce a particular protein. Although any two people's DNA is more than 99% identical, there are millions of sites along the DNA chain where variations regularly occur -- where, for instance, most people have a letter C but some people have a T. Some variations influence what a person looks like; others may make someone either more or less likely to develop a particular disease someday.

Machines now can check DNA from a blood sample for hundreds of thousands of these genetic variations in a matter of hours. Even as the speed of doing so has increased, the cost has fallen, thanks to competition between the machines' makers, Affymetrix Inc. and Illumina Inc.

TGen scientists put a sample from each ALS patient on a tiny "gene chip" and an Affymetrix laser scanner read it. The scanner also read the samples from people without ALS. The next step was to compare the results for any differences that stood out among the ALS patients. By crunching large amounts of data from the gene screens in a computer, the team initially pinpointed variations in about 50 genes that seemed to have some association with ALS.

In late September, a dozen members of the team met at the MDA's Tucson headquarters to study these. Using their laptops, with each scientist initially looking at just one of the 50 genes, they spent two days scouring scientific literature for clues. "We turned the cellphones off and really tried to figure this out," says Dr. Stephan. The effort narrowed the 50 down to about 25 genes that appeared to play a bigger role.

The research points to a novel theory of ALS. Fourteen of the 50 suspect genes are involved in making "adhesion" molecules that help cells stick to one another. It could be that one big problem in ALS is that nerves aren't anchoring correctly to muscle. Scientists already know that some cells become dormant if they aren't attached to another cell. They call it anoikis, the Greek word for homeless.

However, ALS is a complex disease, which may be caused by overlapping genetic malfunctions. For example, TGen says its search also pinpointed a gene called Nox4, long suspected of having a role in ALS. It codes for a toxin that the immune system uses against invaders, but in ALS patients, the gene seems to produce too much of this substance and ends up damaging nerve cells. Another set of genes TGen identified is linked to the degeneration of a part of the skeletal structure found inside motor nerves.

The team hopes the data released today in Yokohama, Japan, will help spur the search for ALS drugs. At the same meeting, a competing team from Johns Hopkins University and the National Institutes of Health will present the result of its own study, and its own list of suspect genes. "What will be interesting is for both of us to see if we come up with the same hits, because if we did, that means they are real," says John Hardy, an NIH researcher who led that effort. Dr. Hardy says so far his genes point a different direction, toward molecules that help the foot-long nerves that connect to muscles to keep their shape. But the groups haven't yet shared their data.

TGen is releasing the results of the gene screen before publishing them in a peer-reviewed journal. Mr. Nieto, at a planning meeting in Phoenix two weeks ago, said, "We have time pressure, so we need to get this information out." He spoke in a slow, slurred voice typical of ALS sufferers, who, because of reduced motor function, can't easily control their tongue and jaw.

Mr. Nieto takes the only U.S.-approved ALS drug, Rilutek, which can prolong survival for several months, and also a drug that can reduce mood swings in patients with ALS or MS. His wife, Lynne, says of the recent TGen findings: "It's the first time I've had hope."

Mr. Nieto's doctor asked TGen to retrieve Mr. Nieto's genetic data after the gene screen. Dr. Stephan did so, but here a problem cropped up. Dr. Stephan soon realized that federal law requires keeping the identity of samples in such research secret. "I thought we could just flip him his [gene data] but we can't do that," he says.

Mr. Nieto and his physician persisted, Dr. Stephan says, so TGen is trying to help them out by having the same gene test done on Mr. Nieto's blood again, in another lab. "We are trying to accommodate [him] as best we can," Dr. Stephan says. "We want to give something he can sink his teeth into."

Mr. Nieto sold his silver Ferrari after he was diagnosed with ALS. To avoid stairs, he recently had an elevator installed in his cliff-side house in Corona del Mar, Calif. He still exercises an hour a day but can no longer play golf or feed himself.

Mr. Nieto says his mind is as sharp as ever and he isn't stopping. His latest project: to financially kick-start a new institute that focuses on cutting-edge ALS research. "The business of ALS is a blast," Mr. Nieto says. "The disease sucks."

Write to Gautam Naik at and Antonio Regalado at

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