Life Scientist of the Year announced

By Staff Writers
Wednesday, 28 October, 2009

Professor Michael Cowley from Monash University has been awarded the 2009 Science Minister’s Prize for Life Scientist of the Year.

The accolade, which comes with a $50,000 grant, is one of several issued today in the Prime Minister's Prizes for Science, which "recognise and reward outstanding early-career research and to demonstrate to the public, and to school students and science undergraduates in particular, that outstanding early-career achievement in science is not only possible but can be of world-class importance."

Professor Cowley received the award in recognition of his ground breaking research on metabolism and obesity.

Cowley has shown how our brains manage our consumption and storage of fat and sugar and how that can go wrong. He has shown unequivocally that losing weight isn’t just a matter of will power.

Now with his colleagues at Monash University he is discovering why obesity increases risks of heart disease and diabetes. And he’s developing therapies to break the connection between these conditions.

Working with mice and monkeys over the last ten years, Cowley has managed to unravel some of the complexity of metabolism and obesity, and to discover potential targets for therapy.

In 1999 he started working at Oregon Health and Science University on understanding the action of the hormone leptin on the brain.

A few years earlier researchers had discovered that leptin could regulate body weight. Cowley identified the neurons in the brain that responded to leptin. He found that leptin activated neurons that suppress weight, and inhibited neurons that increase weight. He also showed how these two types of neurons act to increase or decrease weight.

Central to Cowley's work has been his development of a method to study the actions of hormones in individual living nerve cells within slices of brain tissue. This technique is now widely used across neuroscience. Combined with Cowley's studies of mice and monkeys, and clinical studies in humans, it has led him to a series of discoveries including: how the brain determines when our stomach is full and what’s in the meal, and how it slows down digestion for fatty meals; how the brain detects if we’ve got enough fat and sugar stored away or if we need to eat; how the brain loses touch with our fat and sugar reserves - leading to obesity; and how the brain loses touch with blood sugar levels - leading to diabetes.

Cowley has created a map of the neural circuits involved in controlling body weight. The map both explains the failure of past weight loss drugs and reveals many new drug targets.

He is the inventor of 10 families of patent applications, with 85 patents to date. And the company he founded, Orexigen Therapeutics, has four potential drugs for obesity under development with two at an advanced stage of trials.

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