Formula – now, with added hormones!

The Independent:

Scientist create ‘anti-obesity’ infant formula

By John von Radowitz, PA Science Correspondent

Published: 23 April 2007

Scientists are developing an infant formula designed to be given to babies to prevent them growing up fat, it was revealed today.

The controversial research aims to supplement baby milk with a hormone that suppresses hunger.

Animal studies suggest early exposure to the hormone leptin can programme the brain to prevent over-eating throughout life.

But fears have been raised about the safety of tampering with the brains of babies in such a fundamental way.

The infant formula, together with other “child-friendly” leptin preparations, is being developed by Professor Mike Cawthorne, director of metabolic research at the Clore Laboratory, University of Buckingham.

Prof Cawthorne has already shown that giving rats leptin supplements early in life provides permanent protection against obesity and diabetes.

His study, published in the American Journal of Physiology, found even adult animals fed a high-fat diet remained slim.

Leptin is naturally produced throughout life. But the research suggests that in infancy it “hardwires” the body’s energy balance settings.

It may even determine whether someone is fat or thin before birth.

Feeding the hormone to pregnant rats seems to have a life-long impact on their offspring. Animals born of leptin-treated mothers remain lean, despite being fed a fat-laden diet. In contrast those whose mothers were untreated gain weight and develop diabetes.

Prof Cawthorne argues he is only giving babies what they would normally get anyway from their mothers’ milk.

“The supplemented milks are simply adding back something that was originally present,” he told Chemistry & Industry magazine, which reported on the research today. “Breast milk contains leptin and formula feeds don’t.”

Previous studies looking at the ability of leptin to reduce hunger in human volunteers have proved disappointing.

Prof Cawthorne believes this is because they involved adults, rather than infants. Leptin was only likely to leave its stamp on the malleable brains of babies.

“You would only take this for a short time, very early in life,” said Prof Cawthorne.

However other experts remain to be convinced, and have expressed concerns about safety.

Dr Nick Finer, clinical director of the Wellcome Clinical Research Facility, at Addenbrookes Hospital, Cambridge, said: “The leap to a functional food being effective or safe is enormous. All obesities result from an excess of energy intake over energy expenditure, so any treatment must have effects on either or both arms of the equation.

“Even if this approach is shown to be valid in humans, extensive clinical trials would be needed to allow the right dose to be chosen and to show that the approach was safe. The concept that adding something to a food that could permanently alter brain development is exciting but at the same time so scary that it would mean a wholly new approach about how such treatments can be tested and approved for use. Would the first trials be in newly born children?”

Dr Ian Campbell, medical director of the charity Weight Concern, said: “Without evidence that this works in humans, it is pure flight of fancy that those consuming leptin from infancy will never get fat. I’d be surprised if this product could be advertised or marketed with these extraordinary claims.

“To date, leptin has proved to be a great disappointment. Most of us have plenty and true deficiencies are rare. In fact, obese people tend to have higher than normal levels.”

Professor Jonathan Seckl, a hormone expert at the University of Edinburgh, said: “We need to know whether leptin is acting pre and post-natally, figure out how it works, and dissect the possible side effects before this becomes a potential approach in humans.”

Prof Cawthorne told the Press Association the infant formula work was in the “very early stages”.

“It’s something we’re in the process of looking at,” he said. “There’s potential there because we know that breast-fed offspring have less of a tendency towards obesity in adult life.

“I’m not in the least suggesting that it will cure world wide obesity, but it’s something that could make a difference.

“There are always safety concerns, and whenever you do anything there tend to be unexpected events. But one could argue that giving formula feeds to babies that are different from breast milk might itself be changing their programming.”

He compared giving young children leptin with getting them to take cod liver oil – although he accepted that hormones were powerful substances.

Prof Cawthorne agreed that leptin was not the only natural ingredient missing from formula milk, and other factors also influenced obesity.

Whether or not infant formula with leptin should be classified as a food or medicine was a question that would have to be resolved, he said.

“It is still a grey area,” he added. “One could argue that as you’re replacing something that should be there, it’s not pharmaceutical.”

A spokesman for the Food Standards Agency said: “If you make a functional food using ingredients that are already on the market, then you wouldn’t have to go through a safety assessment. But if it includes new ingredients then you would, and it depends on the sort of ingredients.”

Claire Williamson, from the British Nutrition Foundation, said: “Leptin is a hormone that is synthesised in adipose (fat) tissue which appears to signal how much fat is stored, thus helping to regulate appetite.

“Researchers in the past found that when leptin was injected into specially bred mice, the mice ate less, burned food faster and lost significant amounts of weight.

“However, the precise details of the leptin system and its physiological significance in human weight control still remain to be fully understood.

“The research in rats supplemented with leptin is in its very early stages and needs to be replicated by further studies. Furthermore, results from animal studies cannot be assumed to apply to humans, so it is much too early to say whether this could be a possible way to prevent obesity in humans.

“Obesity is a complex disorder with a diverse range of causal factors, which makes it a complex and challenging disorder to tackle.

“Both genetic and environmental factors come into play in the causes of obesity. However, one incontrovertible fact is that for an individual to become obese, energy intake (i.e. energy from food) must exceed energy expenditure (i.e. through physical activity) for an extended period of time.”


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5 responses to “Formula – now, with added hormones!

  1. I have to be honest, the idea of some scientist devising a formula to manipulate my infant’s brain is more than a little horrifying. No thank you. I’ll stick to avoiding obesity the old fashioned way, encouraging an active life style.

  2. Tell me about it! I hate that they use the specter of obesity, which is a true concern, to fiddle with hormones without tested benefit.

  3. Wow, after reading this article I am shaking my head. They are starting in on the babies now?! I understand that obesity is a problem, and childhood obesity is rising at an alarming rate. BUT, for the most part it’s not genetic or hormonal – it’s bad eating and physical habits. I agree with Paige, I’ll work on my weight problems the old fashioned way and teach my children the same.

  4. Leigh

    I have a totally different take on this. Apparantly this is simply a hormone present in breast milk that isn’t in formula. They have been trying to make formula closer and closer to breast milk ever since it was invented, and this is just one more step. How is that not a good thing for babies who are going to be fed formula? My husband never got a drop of breastmilk, and I shudder to think of the nasty formula he spent his first year of life growing on in the early 70s. I would much rather him have had a formula that has been made to be as close to breastmilk, hormones and all, as possible. (That is, of course, assuming breastmilk wouldn’t have been an option.)

  5. Jillian

    Thanxs for an eye poppin article ‘mom de tinfoil’

    My god anti obesity treatments in infants. This is insanity! How bout more recess and less history about wars….

    I was interested in leptin and wondering about the accuracy of leptin claims

    but now you have me wondering….

    How can this be touted as the next best weight loss revolution if many obese people’s levels of leptin are already high and most people are not lacking in leptin…

    “Animal studies suggest early exposure to the hormone leptin can programme the brain to prevent over-eating throughout life.”

    This is why I was interested in leptin in the first place. I am a chronic not eater or over eater. I struggle trying to find a balance that is comfortable. I guess I just need some good old fashioned discipline…

    Maybe i am a simpleton?

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