EASO New Investigators United Award Winner: Spotlight on Sini Heinonen

sini-heinonen-1Hello Sini. It’s great to have the opportunity to interview you.  Please tell us a bit about yourself.

I grew up in Tapiola, near Helsinki, the capital of Finland. Tapiola is a garden city with a very peaceful atmosphere, and I had a secure and happy childhood with my family which included both parents and a brother. Although I was interested in almost every subject at school, the most excited I got about subjects related to science; mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy and geography. These subjects opened up a whole new world to me, and provided new realms to explore. As a child, I also read a lot of science magazines. I completedhigh-school with top grades and after graduation I began study at the University of Technology in physics, chemistry, mathematics and other life sciences. At that time, I also started a two-year professional education in the Finnish National Opera Ballet School in order to become a professional ballet dancer. I had actively danced since childhood and wanted to try dance at a professional level for a few years. During the next five years I studied part-time and danced professionally, both in the Finnish National Ballet and across Europe.  

In high school I was interested in medicine and medical research, partly due to my dance background and also because it seemed to combine mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology, all of the subjects that felt close to my heart. So, in spring 2008 I concentrated in studying for the entrance examinations and applied in to the Medical Faculty of the University of Helsinki.  

My medical studies started in autumn 2008 and I started my research at the same time. This work was later to become my thesis work. I met Professor Aila Rissanen from the Obesity Research Unit of University of Helsinki in the summer 2008 before my studies commenced and she enrolled me in her research group. Associate Professor Kirsi Pietiläinen became my supervisor. I applied and was accepted into the competitive MD/PhD programme in the Faculty of Medicine (Doctoral Programme in Biomedicine), which enabled me to do my medical studies and my PhD in medicine simultaneously.  

During the three to four first years, we extensively collected samples from our study cohort of young identical obesity-discordant twins. In 2013, I finally started writing the first article of my own. After graduating as an MD in the spring of 2014, I continued my thesis with full-time research work in our unit, the Obesity Research Unit and FinMIT – Center of Excellence in Research on Mitochondria. At that time I was also awarded the Best Licentiate Thesis Award of the Year 2013 by the Faculty of Medicine for my work. Gradually, my first articles were being published from 2014 on and some also received media attention, like the study on metabolically healthy and unhealthy twins with obesity in Diabetologia in 2014, and another study on mitochondrial biogenesis, which was published in Diabetes in 2015 alongside a companioneditorial on the subject.  

We would love to learn more about your country and the area in Finland you live in. 

Finland is a wonderful country to live in. We have such a lot of nature and wilderness, but we are still a very modern country with educated people and safe and peaceful surroundings. The standard of scientific and medical research is very high. We are often in the front line in terms of technology and innovation, which enables progress and makes doing research here very interesting. Finnish people can often appear quiet and reserved at first glance, but are friendly, helpful and trustworthy when you get to know them better. They keep their word and are also hardworking and perseverant. Finnish nature is beautiful especially in the summer with long light nights. We have a lot of forests, lakes and wild animals. In winter, Lapland is a great place to see, and snow makes everything so bright. However, it may also be very cold during the winter months and during the time before the snow falls in November and December it is definitely very dark, rainy and windy. The amount of light in the southern Finland can be only 6 hours and in the north there is no daylight at all. I live in the Helsinki area, which is the capital city of the country and the surroundings which arehome to over 1 000 000 people. By European standards however, that might be considered a small town. Finland indeed is a sparsely inhabited country with only around 5.5 million people and 15 people/square kilometer. 

How did you come to enter the field of obesity?  

Already before my medical studies I was interested in medical research and the MD/PhD programme based within the Faculty of Medicine in the University of Helsinki. However, my entryinto the field of obesity, adipose tissue and mitochondria was very much a coincidence. Before starting my medical studies, I met Professor Aila Rissanen of our Obesity Research Unit onan unrelated occasion in the summer 2008, which resulted inher telling me that she wanted me to work in her unit. I started working with my supervisor MD and Associate Professor Kirsi Pietiläinen by helping to take adipose and muscle tissue samples from our twin subjects, handling the samples, learning to extract pure adipocytes and their RNA and DNA from tissue, visiting our collaboration laboratories, Professor Peter Arner’s Lipid laboratory in Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm as well as Gema Fruhbeck’s Metabolic Laboratory in Pamplona, Spain, to acquire more biomedical techniques and then gradually acquiring data of my own and writing my first article. Both Kirsi and Aila trusted me with big and important projects, like extracting the RNA and DNA of our valuable twin material. All my research work I did in addition to my full-time medical studies – during weekends, holidays and summers.  

Gradually, as my studies and the other studies from our group on adipose tissue and adipocytes progressed, we started concentrating more and more on the mitochondria in adipose tissue. This was because all the gene expression results between the twins suggested that mitochondrial function and its various components were one of the most affected and changed gene-expression pathways between the obese and the lean identical co-twins that I was investigating. Particularlyintriguing was the fact that the changes in mitochondria-related gene expression, and in my later studies, differences in protein levels between the obese and the lean co-twins were seen at a very early stage in acquired obesity, in clinically healthy young twins, with a relatively short history of obesity. We also discovered that there were differences in the responses of obesity, possibly based on genetic differences between individuals, because some of the obese twins had more pronounced metabolic problems, more liver fat and larger adipocytes than other, similarly obese twins. And interestingly, there was also a difference in mitochondrial gene expression between these two groups.

In basic scientific research I am interested and intrigued by the possibility of producing something that in due course could help patients through understanding the basic principles of a disease and through the development of new medicines and new treatment strategies. I also like the basic research work in itself, because it is very variable and includes both clinical and laboratory aspects, writing, acquiring new information and learning new things every day. 

Congratulations on winning the highly competitive 2016 EASO New Investigators Basic Science prize. Please help us learn more about your thesis and present research interests:

In my thesis work, which is to be published this week, I have investigated the biological pathways in adipose tissue that lead to the development of metabolic complications in early-onset obesity in young healthy twins. The aim of the work was to study how acquired obesity affects adipose tissue and adipocyte function and how this links to whole body metabolism. Of special interest were the mitochondria and their function in obese adipose tissue. The rare weight-discordant monozygotic (MZ) co-twin setting used in the studies is uniquely positioned to disentangle acquired and inherited metabolic pathways to disease in obesity. Identical MZ twin pairs discordant for obesity enable controlling for genetic background, age, sex and early environmental influences. As MZ twins are fully identical at the level of genome sequence, the observed differences between co-twins can be assumed to be acquired. This is a major strength in a study regarding a polygenic and multifactorial trait as obesity.

Adipocyte hypertrophy in adipose tissue is one of the main features of obesity. The first study of my thesis investigated adipose tissue hypertrophy and hyperplasia in acquired obesity and its associations to whole body metabolism and gene expression pathways of adipose tissue. We showed a high within-pair resemblance in adipocyte size and number in twins suggesting that the adipocyte phenotype is genetic or due to shared environmental factors. Hypertrophy and low number of adipocytes in acquired obesity was related to metabolic dysfunction in obesity and associated with the disturbances in mitochondrial function and with increased cell death within the adipose tissue.

In the second study we investigated how transcriptional pathways of subcutaneous adipose tissue and the liver fat associate with “metabolically healthy obesity” – a phenomenon where some of the obese individuals stay free from the metabolic complications usually associated with weight gain. We showed for the first time in twins that the amount of liver fat is a key clinical determinant of metabolic health and that low liver fat associates with maintenance of high mitochondrial transcription and lack of inflammation in subcutaneous adipose tissue.

In the third and fourth studies of the thesis I addressed mitochondrial biogenesis and oxidative metabolism in detail in adipose tissue and in adipocytes, respectively. Obesity was related to reduced mitochondrial mass and oxidative metabolic activity in subcutaneous adipose tissue, both in the nuclear and in the mitochondrial transcription level, as well as decreased protein levels in the mitochondrial respiratory OXPHOS system, especially OXPHOS complex subunits I and IV. The mitochondrial ‘dysfunction’ paralleled whole body insulin resistance and low-grade systemic inflammation. Remarkably, these changes were seen already at the early stages of acquired obesity, in young otherwise clinically healthy twins. In the fourth study, we showed that the global downregulation of mitochondrial transcriptional signature in acquired obesity originates at least partly from the adipocyte cells of the adipose tissue.

According to my work, the development of obesity seems to associate with mitochondrial dysfunction in adipose tissue. The decreased function of mitochondria was evident at the level of both nuclear gene expression and mitochondrial gene expression, as well as on mitochondrial protein levels. These changes associated with metabolic disturbances of obesity. With rare obesity-discordant MZ twins we have been able to show that these changes are not genetic but result from acquired factors. However, as there was a remarkable similarity of adipocyte number between the co-twins, responses to obesity may have a partial genetic basis. With low capacity to adipocyte hypertrophy, excess fat may accumulate to liver and other tissues. Liver fat content seems to be a clear determinant of metabolic health in acquired obesity. The results of my thesis as a whole suggest that obesity-associated metabolic disturbances might be halted by improving mitochondrial activity in adipose tissue. 

In future, I hope to further pursue research on adipose tissue, adipocytes and their mitochondria. It would, for example, be very interesting to discover which kind of nutritional cues affect the obese and the lean adipocyte cells and thus what kind of nutritional and environmental surroundings would best help to reverse the metabolic problems of obese adipocytes. 

What are your future career plans?

My dissertation will be held this month – November 2016 – and thereafter I will graduate as a PhD in Medicine. I then still have some months’ funding as a full-time researcher, which enables me to start some new projects at my current lab before February 2017, when I’ll begin to work in basic health care as a general practitioner for 10 months. This is to keep up with my medical knowledge and to acquire the European medical standards as a doctor, thus to enable me to work as an MD in all other European countries in addition to Finland. I have also enrolled in the internal medicine specialization program in the University of Helsinki and will start with the internal medicine specialization after the general practicum. I then also wish to continue with my research and later on also combine it with my clinical work. I am interested in a Post Doctoral phase in research, either in Finland or in a country abroad, and the subject could be related to my own work or to another research area. By now, I have acquired a strong set of skills in clinical research as well as in various laboratory techniques and data analyses, and it will be interesting to use and develop them further with new research ideas. I hope to acquire funding to pursue some of the interesting research plans that we have been planning in our unit on identical obesity -discordant twins and also for a Post Doc in Finland or abroad.

Aside from your professional interests, what are your hobbies and interests?

During my free time I actively teach and lead my own contemporary dance group and work as an artistic director of astudents’ dance association. I also swim a lot. Swimming in the mornings gives me a lot of energy for my work. My other interests include baking and cooking, indoor-climbing, running, travelling and non-fiction books on life sciences and medicine. I love meeting with friends and just relaxing. 

Sini Heinonen, MD, PhD elect (25 November 2016)

Sini Heinonen is an MD and a PhD Student in Obesity Research Unit, Diabetes and Obesity Research Programs Unit, University of Helsinki, Finland. 

Sini Heinonen’s work has focused on the effects of acquired obesity in obesity-discordant monozygotic twins. Her interests are the study of adipose tissue and its mitochondria. She has studied adipose tissue enlargement, mechanisms maintaining the “metabolically healthy obesity” – and the downregulation of mitochondrial biogenesis and its relation to metabolic health in obese adipose tissue and adipocytes. Sini Heinonen was awarded Young Investigator Award of the European Obesity Society in basic science in 2016. Her work has also been granted support from various Finnish medical and scientific associations, as well as the Award of The Best Licentiate Thesis of the year 2013 from the Faculty of Medicine in Helsinki. Sini Heinonen graduated as an MD in 2014 and will finish her PhD in November 2016.

Sini has worked in Obesity Research Unit and FinMIT -Center of Excellence in Research on Mitochondria since 2008. She has extended her knowledge with visits and collaboration in Metabolic Research Laboratory, Pamplona, Spain and Lipid Laboratorium, Karolinska Institutet, Sweden, as well as NUTRIM School of Nutrition and Metabolism, Human Biology, Maastricht University, The Netherlands. She has presented her data in various international and national conferences since 2010. Along with her research work Sini Heinonen is in the specialist training program of internal medicine at University of Helsinki.


EASO New Investigators United Spotlight Interview: meet Claudia Sikorski-Luck

Claudia, it’s lovely to meet you. Congratulations on your NIU award at the European Obesity Summit for public health. Please tell us about yourself. Where did you grow up and how did your journey with science begin?

Claudia Sikorski-LuckI grew up in a small rural village in the middle of Thuringia – a state in Germany that is also known as its “green heart”. This is mainly because its shape looks like a heart, but also because mountain and forest ranges are key landscape elements. I suppose this is where I developed my love for nature and the outdoors; even as kids my brother, sister and I went out and about in the woods surrounding our village. I attended regular primary school and continued on to high school in a city close by. In 6th grade, my mother who is an English teacher, got the chance to spend 6 months in a teacher exchange and took me along – that’s how I ended up in North Carolina for this period of time. I spent another year in the US during high school and finished my high school exams in 2004. It was during this time we were to write our first scientific summary – we were to research literature and even collect data on a chosen topic – and I enjoyed becoming lost in writing this report. I remember that my limited knowledge of research designs and data analysis limited my work and I continued researching how to gain a better understanding on my topic (assessing personalities of students who spend a year abroad).

After high school I was struck by the many options around fields of study and had some difficulty choosing what to study. Medicine, psychology, political science and journalism all made the short list, but psychology turned out to be the sought after combination of the social and natural sciences. I developed a strong background in research methodology at the University of Leipzig, which included several of my own small research projects. I also started to work as a student assistant at the Institute of Sociology, which continued to propel my path toward research and which broadened my horizons to new and more advanced statistical methods, while introducing new concepts in a sociological context. My final thesis about depression in old age provided the last push to lead me to pursue a career in research.

I started working at the Institute of Social Medicine, Occupational Health and Public Health in 2010, where I was responsible for my first individual research project – assessing the attitudes of the general German population and health care professionals towards people with obesity. The next years were dedicated to my PhD and the project, both of which were finished in 2013. I liked the challenge of the topic – it means that you have to be prepared for questions of all kinds (like: Are people with obesity really not just lazy? What are the reasons for obesity then?) and to answer these you have to think outside the box and be open to different research areas. I very much like that my work feeds my curiosity to learn about things, gives me the opportunity to see the world and meet inspiring people and other researchers – this work is never boring.

Just this year, after a post-doc phase at the Institute of Social Medicine, Occupational Health and Public Health and a short stay at Columbia University, New York, I was appointed professor for psychological health and psychotherapy at the University of Applied Sciences, Gera. During my PhD studies, I continued to pursue my psychological education as well and I’m in the midst of finishing the training required to become a psychotherapist. In summary, I would say that I have found a position that lets me combine research and practical work with patients and students – which I would have defined as my “ideal” position.

We would love to learn more about your home country and the area you live in now:

Even though I work in Gera, I still live in Leipzig, Germany, and I commute about an hour every day (one way). As you may have noticed from my career path, Leipzig has been the main focus of my studies and work. It’s a wonderful city to live in, it feels very open and free in general. Rents were cheap and the creative scene bustling when I was a student, and now I enjoy the art and cultural scene as well. Many of my close friends and family are in Leipzig or close by. The only thing missing is the mountains and woods.

How did you come to enter this particular field of research?

A lot of this was plainly co-incidence. The German system is somewhat directive; PhD students often rely on their supervisors for project ideas and actual projects. My supervisor was simply wonderful (Prof. Steffi Riedel-Heller); she trusted me as a newbie with a big and important project, and encouraged me to keep going at those times when I felt like I may have been reaching a dead end. After taking over the project, I simply wanted to find out more about obesity in general and naturally developed an intrinsic motivation to stay in the field. I never quite let go of other interests, such as mental health in old age.

Did you participate in the 2015 EASO NIU Summer School?

I attended the 2015 NIU Summer School as a teacher which was a great experience. I am always amazed by some of the young researchers coming into the field; and particularly by their knowledge and eagerness to learn. I suppose it is being able to get excited about things paired with passion for research that impresses me and I’m not sure I had that from the beginning. I am broadening my research fields to psychological aspects of bariatric surgery and more pathophysiological parameters of obesity stigma. I also supervise students on their thesis themes of psychological and psychotherapeutic topics in general.

What are your future career plans?

After starting my new position just a few while ago, it seems hard to think about next steps. I think I would like to spend some more time in another country and experience research practice there. Additionally, I would like to be able to secure funding to pursue some of the ideas that have been in my head for some time.

EASO New Investigators United Spotlight: former NIU Board Member Gijs Goossens

Gijs GoossensGijs Goossens obtained his PhD on the metabolic and hemodynamic effects of the renin-angiotensin system in obesity in 2006 (Maastricht University, The Netherlands), and has worked as a visiting scientist at the Oxford Centre for Diabetes, Endocrinology and Metabolism at the University of Oxford (UK). He is currently holding a position as an Associate Professor at the Department of Human Biology, NUTRIM School of Nutrition and Translational Research in Metabolism, Maastricht University. The overarching goal of his translational research is to provide an evidence base for future interventions to prevent and treat obesity-related chronic metabolic and cardiovascular diseases. His research line is focused on elucidating the role of adipose tissue dysfunction in the pathophysiology of obesity-related insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes in humans. In particular, the interplay between tissue oxygenation, inflammation and metabolism is studied by integrating innovative clinical in vivo methodology to phenotype humans in detail, and mechanistic human cell culture experiments to better understand underlying mechanisms. For his work, Dr. Goossens has received several prestigious awards, including the Young Investigator Award in Clinical Research from the European Association for the Study of Obesity (2011) and the Rising Star Award from the European Foundation for the Study of Diabetes (2014). He has been a Board Member of EASO’s New Investigators United between 2010-2016, and has been President of the Netherlands Association for the Study of Obesity (NASO) since 2014.

Gijs, great to speak with you. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood? I understand that there were some pivotal life events that led to your interest in science.

As a child at primary school, I spent most of my free time playing football with friends. Actually, I have played football at a competitive level for about 25 years, which has been great fun and has also contributed to developing “people skills”. I have also enjoyed running. At secondary school, I started to realize that human biology is exciting. It was already during these years that I became interested in health; my grandmother was suffering from type 2 diabetes and related complications, including diabetic retinopathy. In fact, this was also the topic of one of my biology projects, and a local ophthalmologist took the time to show me pictures and explain how this particular complication develops and is diagnosed, which was absolutely fascinating. Since I enjoyed sports and also had become really interested in general health and well being, I decided to study Health Sciences, with a specialization Movement Sciences, at Maastricht University in The Netherlands (1997-2001).

I have always been impressed by the huge amount of information obtained by scientists, but at the same time I became aware that even more questions remain to be answered. As a graduate student, I worked on a research project addressing the importance of intramyocellular lipids, measured using in vivo proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy (1H-MRS), in glucose homeostasis in humans. Thereafter, I was convinced that I wanted to pursue a PhD. However, I decided to first acquire more experience with metabolic research abroad, and had the opportunity to work together with two excellent scientists, Profs. Keith Frayn and Fredrik Karpe, on adipose tissue physiology at the Oxford Centre for Diabetes and Metabolism (OCDEM), University of Oxford, in the United Kingdom (2001-2002). This really boosted my interest in adipose tissue biology in obesity. Thereafter, I started a PhD project at Maastricht University, and completed my thesis, entitled ‘The renin-angiotensin system in obesity: metabolic and hemodynamic effects’, under supervision of Profs. Ellen Blaak, Marleen van Baak and Wim Saris in 2006. As a post-doctoral fellow (2006-2011), I became even more fascinated in metabolic impairments in obesity, and the importance of adipose tissue dysfunction and the cross-talk with other key metabolic organs herein, and continued to perform human in vivo studies in this field. I worked as an Assistant Professor for about five years (2011-2016), combining research and teaching, and was appointed as an Associate Professor at the Department of Human Biology at Maastricht University earlier this year.

What are the most exciting recent developments in the field of adipose tissue biology?

The number of studies in the field of adipose tissue biology has increased exponentially over the last 15 years. This shift in research focus is primarily driven by the tremendous increase in the prevalence of obesity and related chronic diseases, and the importance of the adipose organ herein. Intriguingly, expansion of adipose tissue does not necessarily translate directly into increased metabolic and cardiovascular disease risk. A proportion of individuals with obesity seem to be relatively protected against worsening of metabolic health, suggesting that adipose tissue dysfunction rather than the absolute amount of fat mass determines cardiometabolic risk. Although adipose tissue dysfunction in obesity is currently recognized as a key factor in the pathophysiology of obesity-related chronic diseases, the trigger that instigates an impaired functioning of this tissue is not yet fully understood. Given its central role in cardiometabolic health, it is not surprising that adipose tissue, in addition to other key metabolic organs, has become an important therapeutic target. In our laboratory, we investigate the effects of different interventions (e.g. exercise, dietary and pharmacological interventions) to restore adipose tissue function and improve metabolic health in obese and prediabetic humans, with healthy ageing as the ultimate goal. To accomplish this, innovative human in vivo techniques, analyses of adipose and skeletal muscle biopsies, and mechanistic human cell culture experiments are integrated.

You have been a member of the NIU Board for six years. Please help us learn more about NIU and about your work on the board.

New Investigators United (NIU), which was founded in 2005, is part of the European Association for the Study of Obesity (EASO), and is the communication platform for all new professionals working in this exciting field. NIU aims to facilitate the networking of new European scientists, provide an arena for the exchange of ideas and best practices between experts and experts-to-come, and improve opportunities for future collaborations. Every year, NIU Board members organize a scientific session, which is part of the official program of the annual European Congress on Obesity, followed by a social and networking get-together with drinks and hors d’ oeuvres. During the NIU session, there usually are two or three presentations by candidates for the NIU Best Thesis Award as well as two presentations by established scientists in the field of obesity. It is great to see that the number of people attending the NIU sessions have substantially increased during the last few years; now we see more than 150 people – both new and senior investigators – in the audience.

In addition to organizing the NIU session during ECOs, the NIU Board has to date organized two NIU Summer Schools, which took place in Portugal in 2015 and 2016. The aim of this intimate and selective training is development of knowledge and key skills in the field of obesity research. The program includes lectures from international experts on multiple aspects of obesity, practical trainings (e.g. assessment of food intake), 5-min pitches by delegates who present themselves and their research, and other interesting workshops (e.g. grant applications, career development). It has been a privilege and pleasure to serve as a Member of the NIU Board from 2010-2016, and I would like to thank the members of the NIU Board and EASO’s Executive Board for a great collaboration. I am confident that the new team will bring new energy and good ideas to continue the important work for EASO’s new investigators.

Aside from your professional interests, what are your hobbies and interests?

In my free time, I like to spend time with my family and friends. My wife and I have two beautiful daughters, Saar (almost 3 year old) and Fem (1 year old), and we obviously devote a lot of time to them. Both are very energetic – just like their father – and it is great to see how they develop while growing up. I very much enjoy running and cycling, since it gives me energy, makes me feel good and contributes to a positive mindset. Since I have limited spare time these days, I usually go for a 45-min high-intensity run or a longer-distance run a few times per week, which is more time-efficient than cycling. I am convinced that exercising regularly also helps you remain disciplined, which can be valuable in a demanding work environment. Although I am ambitious, I think it is important to put your work in perspective. I feel that focusing too much on your career may even interfere with long-term success, no matter how counterintuitive that might sound. Therefore, I try to maintain a healthy balance between work and personal life, although this is not always easy. 

Please tell us about your future career plans:

I want to continue to grow as a scientist and further develop my own independent line of research, together with the great team of people working with me in Maastricht. Furthermore, I would like to collaborate more closely with leading scientists internationally, for example on EU projects. I hope to motivate and inspire young researchers, because I truly believe that one can make much more progress if you love what you are doing. Although we have learned an enormous amount in a relatively short time, the complexity of adipose tissue presents numerous challenges and at the same time provides the potential of ample therapeutic opportunities. There is much more to discover, and I will do my utmost best to contribute in a significant way to the development of more effective prevention and treatment strategies to fight obesity and its complications.

EASO New Investigators United Spotlight: Eveline Dirinck

Hello Eveline. It’s great to have the opportunity to meet with you. For those of you who don’t know Eveline, here is a brief biography.

Eveline Dirinck was born on February 22, 1982. After finishing High School, where she studied science and mathematics, she started Medical School at Antwerp University. Her research during Medical School focused on the value of insulin sensitivity tests in a population with obesity. She graduated cum lauda in 2007 after which she began to train as an internist. In August 2009, she started work on her PhD thesis at the department of Endocrinology, Diabetology and Metabolism at Antwerp University Hospital. In 2014 she graduated as an internist and in July 2015 she graduated as an endocrinologist. In April 2016, she successfully defended her PhD thesis entitled “Endocrine disrupting chemicals: from accumulation to their role in the global “neuro-endocrine” epidemic of obesity and its metabolic consequences.” Since September 2015, she has worked as a member of staff at the department of Endocrinology, Diabetology and Metabolism of Antwerp University Hospital.

Eveline, we would love to learn more about your country and the area you live in; what is it like?

I live and work close to Antwerp, Europe’s second biggest port and a very international city. Antwerp is a trending, lively city that offers many cultural and leisure activities to take my mind off science. Antwerp is one of the main cities of Belgium, a little country located at the very heart of Europe with beautiful ancient cities with great museums, theatres and a vibrant music scene, lovely countryside, and true appreciation of good food and drink (it’s extremely hard to find a really bad restaurant in Belgium).

How did you come to enter this field?

There are several reasons I became interested in obesity. As a student, I was intrigued by the fact that so many questions still needed to be answered in the field of obesity. Our weight is a key determinant of our general health, and the mechanisms controlling it are fascinating in their complexity. During Medical School, I already initiated my research efforts in the department with Professor Van Gaal. I still feel privileged to work with him. After an international career of 30 years in the field of obesity, he remains inquisitive and enthusiastic about new theories and  developments.

Congratulations on winning the highly competitive 2016 EASO New Investigators Best Thesis prize. Please help us learn more about your thesis and present research interests:

Below is a synopsis of my thesis:


Obesity is quickly becoming one of the most significant human health threats worldwide. Traditionally, the increase in obesity is attributed to an increased caloric intake and a concomitant significant reduction in physical activity and energy expenditure  However, this does not fully explain the extent of the current epidemic. Concurrent with the obesity epidemic, is the exponential increase of human exposure to synthetic chemicals worldwide. Several chemicals are known to mimic, enhance or inhibit the action of hormones and are therefore called endocrine disrupting chemical(s) (EDC(s)). Today, we are dealing with thousands of these chemicals, either as individual compounds or as part of a potentially dangerous cocktail.  It has been postulated that certain chemicals potentially play a causative role in the development of obesity, by affecting or causing changes in fat mass.

In this PhD, attention is focused on polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), the organochlorine pesticide DDT and its metabolite p,p’-DDE, and phthalates. PCBs are odorless, tasteless, viscous liquids whose chemical properties make them excellent dielectric and coolant fluids. Therefore, they were used worldwide for various industrial purposes. There are 250 different PCB congeners and commercially available products always contained a mixture of several congeners. The production of PCBs was banned in the 1970s. Unfortunately, since PCBs are extremely resistant to biological degradation, significant bioaccumulation leads to an ongoing human exposure. The most notorious organochlorine pesticide is dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DDT. DDT is metabolized by the human body into dichlorodiphenyldichloroethylene (p,p’-DDE). DDT was used in abundance in the western world until its ban in the 1960s. Unfortunately, DDT remains a popular pesticide in the developing world to increase agricultural production and to control various vectors spreading diseases like malaria. Similar to PCBs, OCPs are very resistant to biological degradation and are labeled persistent organic pollutants (POPs). Today, both PCBs and p,p’-DDE are found in humans around the globe. Phthalates are an essential compound of plastics, lending it flexibility, transparency and durability. Phthalates are easily released from the plastic  into the environment, a process that is accelerates as the plastic ages and breaks down.

Numerous studies have investigated the link between exposure to EDC and obesity and obesity related disorders such as diabetes and the metabolic syndrome. However, the description of the obese or diabetic state, often relied on crude measures such as body mass index, or selfreporting of disease states. Therefore, this study aimed to provide a very detailed description of lean, overweight an obese subjects in terms of body composition, metabolic health, other related factors such as physical activity and toxicological analyses. The overweight and obese group were treated with dietary measures or bariatric surgery and analyses were repeated after 3, 6 and 12 months.

Firstly, serum levels of POPs are lower in obese individuals compared to lean individuals. A potential explanation may be found in the dilution capabilities of these substances. As these lipophilic chemicals are preferably stored in adipose tissue, a higher percentage of body fat will lead to fast and efficient storage, with lower serum levels as a consequence. In adipose tissue, the concentrations of PCBs and p,p’-DDE were identical in both subcutaneous and visceral fat. This implies that, although the serum levels were lower, the total amount of chemicals in an obese individual are higher given the higher amount of fat mass. Despite the identical absolute concentrations in both fat compartments in weight stable conditions, only the subcutaneous fat was significantly negatively associated with PCB serum levels. During weight loss, POP serum levels increased substantially, but the rise was more pronounced in those patients that relatively lost more visceral fat. These data suggest that the obesogenic effect and dynamics of POPs might be more pronounced in the visceral fat compartment.

The second part of this thesis focused on the link between endocrine disrupting chemicals and disturbances of glucose metabolism. Our analyses indicate a positive link between disturbed glucose tolerance, and the total amount of POPs in the human body. We could not identify a compensatory rise in insulin secretion. This finding seems to support the hypothesis of direct POP toxicity to the beta-cell as a potential causative factor in the development of type 2 diabetes mellitus. Even after correction for known risk factors such as visceral adiposity and a positive familial history,  a statistically significant role for POPs on the risk of abnormal glucose tolerance was identified. These data further strengthen the hypothesis of the diabetogenic capacities of POPs in vivo.  Apart from POPs, focus was also put on phthalates and their link with glucose metabolism. In our overweight and obese population, exposure to phthalates was associated with markers of increased insulin resistance, decreased insulin sensitivity and possibly impaired beta cell function.

A third part focused on the link between POPs and metabolic health, using both the standard definition of the metabolic syndrome, as a more elaborate definition of metabolically healthy versus unhealthy obese (MHO versus MUO) that took into account additional information on insulin resistance and inflammation. Our analyses indicate that PCB serum levels were higher in MUO vs MHO, but not in individuals with the metabolic syndrome versus individuals without the metabolic syndrome. The increment in PCB serum levels during weight loss was significant, but did not differ between groups. After weight loss, the resolution of a metabolically unfavorable state was not influenced by the PCB serum levels at baseline. From a clinical point of view, these finding are reassuring as they seem to suggest that current PCB levels in a Belgian population are not capable to impair the metabolically favorable changes related to weight loss.

Finally, since thyroid hormones are key players in the control system of our metabolism, with, amongst others, a pivotal role in energy metabolism, the relation between thyroid function and PCBs and their hydroxylated metabolites was investigated. We could link circulating free T4 levels to serum levels of several PCBs and hydroxylated PCB metabolites, but we didn’t identify a link with thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH).

The results of this study contribute to the increasing amount of data regarding the obesogenic and diabetogenic  capacities of a number of chemicals. At present, the data regarding this hypothesis are very suggestive but not yet categorically conclusive. Obesity and its related conditions are difficult to treat, and health care related costs of these disease states are towering. The obesogen hypothesis should remain an important research area as reduction of exposure offers a unique preventive possibility at population level.

Fascinating and important work on the role of chemical endocrine system disrupters. What are your future career plans, Eveline?

I wish to continue my efforts in unraveling the link between endocrine disrupters, obesity and metabolic diseases. In addition to obesity and type 2 diabetes, I have a special interest in management of diabetic foot ulcers and in the pre- and postoperative management of bariatric patients.

Aside from your professional interests, what are your hobbies and interests?

I am married to the most wonderful man in the western hemisphere, and together we have 2 adorable twin boys, aged 5. Although my husband is not a physician, he understands the responsibilities that come with my clinical and research work and is extremely supportive. Coming home to my 3 men every evening is the main reason I am a very happy woman.

EASO New Investigators United Spotlight

Maria Angela Guzzardi is a member of the New Investigators United Board.

Maria Angela, Please tell us about yourself.

I was born in Pisa, in Tuscany, but my origins are Sicilian, since that is the place where my family comes from and that I consider my home region.

I was an active and curious girl, and in school, I was interested in science and biology, and also in philosophy and literature. After I undertook study in classics, I decided to focus on science and studied Medicinal Chemistry and Technology at the University of Pisa. As an undergraduate, I became aware of my interest in scientific research and in 2010 I completed my PhD in Innovative Strategies in biomedical Research with a thesis on “Dynamic hepatocytes cultures as in vitro models of the liver and the metabolic system”, at the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies, a joint programme with the University of Pisa. During my PhD I was very motivated and wanted to explore other aspects of scientific research and other realities. Thus, I spent sometime at the Oxford Center for Diabetes, Endocrinology and Metabolism (OCDEM) in Oxford (UK), and then a full year at the Center for Bioengineering in Medicine (CEM), the Harvard Medical School and the Shriners Children Hospital in Boston (MA, USA). Afterwards, I worked as post-doc fellow at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, working on the interaction between hepatitis C virus life cycle and host lipid metabolism. Different work experiences made me realise that I am greatly interested in the complex regulation underlying metabolic homeostasis and by study of the cross-talk between the organs mainly involved in this process of regulation.

In order to gain a deeper understanding in this field, I began working as post-doc in the group of Endocrinology, Metabolism and Nuclear Medicine led by Dr. Patricia Iozzo at the Institute of Clinical Physiology at the National Research Council in Pisa, where I still work.

We would love to learn more about your country and the area you live in:

I live in Pisa, which is a lovely student town in Tuscany. Pisa is located about 20 minutes from the sea and about 1 hour from the Appennini mountain chain. The town is famous worldwide for its leaning tower that every year attracts thousands of tourists who take funny pictures pretending to hold up the tower. But if you have the chance to live in Pisa, you can discover that such a small town has a lot of beautiful spots: there is the lovely Arno river that crosses the town just before falling into the Mediterranean sea, there are several historica churches and monuments, the medieval brick wall surrounding the town, and the beautiful Cavalieri square where the historical building of the Scuola Normale of Pisa, formally founded in 1810 by Napoleonic decree, when Tuscany was a province of the French empire.

Please share some detail about your specific professional interests and any research, EU projects or clinical teams you are working with:

In Pisa I am currently part of the Endocrinology, Metabolism and Nuclear Medicine group. My research is focused on the etiology and physiopathology of obesity and type- 2 diabetes, and on the identification of the early mechanisms and markers associated with the development of the above pathological conditions.

My initial interest was the study of glucose metabolism in animal models of obesity and in response to different metabolic conditions by the use of positron emission tomography (PET) imaging technique. In the last years, my interest has extended to the study of the effect of very early exposure to an obesogenic environment. In fact, I have been working extensively on the effect of maternal obesity on offspring cardio-metabolic health, which is the focus of the EU FP7 project DORIAN. During the course of this project, I really came to understand and appreciate that a multidisciplinary approach is of paramount importance when tackling a complex health problem such as obesity, including its development and its complications.

I am also interested in the association between obesity and brain metabolism and function. In the EU FP7 project Neurofast I have been assessing brain response to food cues in a group of women with obesity using PET imaging, and I have explored the hypothesis of food addiction.

How did you find the 2015 EASO NIU Summer School and can you share what you are looking forward to for the 2016 summer session?

Since May 2015 I have been a Board Member of the NIU. The 2015 EASO NIU Summer School was a very successful experience for both young delegates and the EASO NIU staff and the speakers. In fact, it was a good chance to discuss hot topics in the field of obesity, but also to meet and talk with other young researchers from other European countries and share experiences. The summer school 2016 will be even more engaging, not only bus to the important and cutting edge topics that will be addressed, but also because the program includes a special session aimed at helping the new researcher on grant and proposal writing. Moreover delegates will have the chance to present themselves and their work, which I think is a great opportunity, and may pave the way to EASO establishing a European community of new researchers in the field of obesity.

What are your future career plans?

My plan is to develop a stronger expertise in the etiopathology and pathophysiology of obesity and of insulin resistance, and to become an independent researcher. I am working hard to grow a network of international and multidisciplinary collaborations. In order to turn scientific research in helpful treatments for patients’ management, is very important to tackle the mechanisms associated with the development and establishment of obesity, insulin resistance or other pathological conditions. I think that in order to pursue this aim, a multidisciplinary approach is mandatory.

Aside from your professional interests, what are your hobbies and interests?

During the weekend or in the evening during week days I love to participate in sport, such as tennis, and I spend time at the gym. In the summertime, I love walking on the beach just before sunset, when it is less crowded and the weather isn’t as hot, and I enjoy swimming. I also love reading, and I prefer mystery and thriller stories, but I also appreciate classical authors.

I love music and I can play piano, but I regret that I have almost abandoned it in recent years due to shortage of time.

New Investigators United: Spotlight on Catherine Gibbons

Catherine Gibbons is an exercise physiologist, and is particularly interested in exercise, physical activity and sedentary behaviour in the control of appetite and obesity. Her 2013 PhD dissertation, is entitled ‘Tonic and Episodic Peptides and Appetite Control in Response to Nutrients and Exercise in Obese Adults’. Since then she has held Research Fellow and Senior Research Fellow positions working on large-scale exercise research projects using a psychobiological systems approach in order to investigate exercise-induced compensatory eating.

Catherine Gibbons
Catherine Gibbons

I was an active and relatively academic child, with a healthy obsession with most sports. This led to my interest in Sports and Exercise Science which I studied for an undergraduate degree at Loughborough University. I went on to complete my Masters in Sport and Exercise Nutrition at Loughborough University before moving into a full time research position at the University of Leeds in 2008. I completed my PhD in 2013 and have been employed as a research fellow and senior research fellow to date. My particular interest in exercise and appetite control began during my undergraduate project where I assisted on a research project looking at the acute effect of exercise modality (cycling versus running) on gut peptides, appetite and energy intake. At this time, we worked with normal weight individuals but I became aware of similar work being done with overweight and obese populations, and the wider implications of the topic. That is where my interest really started to peak and I started to seek out opportunities in this area and therefore moved to work with Professor John Blundell and Dr Graham Finlayson at University of Leeds. I am an exercise physiologist by background and did my PhD on the role of exercise and gut peptides in appetite control. My ongoing work focusses on investigating the role of sedentary behaviour and physical activity in the control of appetite and energy balance.

In Leeds, I am part of the ‘Appetite Control and Energy Balance’ Research Group (Appetite Control & Energy Balance Group). The theoretical basis for my research asserts that understanding the mechanisms involved in energy intake and energy expenditure (i.e. human appetite and physical (in)activity) is paramount for successful action to treat and prevent obesity (through intervention and policy). I believe the integration of different types of expertise is essential in research on the multi-faceted issue of obesity, and in the integration of appetite and physical activity research. The blend of physiological expertise (e.g. body composition analysis, indirect calorimetry, peptide biomarkers, exercise physiology) is a perfect complement to the behavioural and psychological know-how established in Leeds.

I am currently involved in a number of research projects – EU FP7 projects ‘Full4Health’, ‘SATIN (Satiety Innovation)’ and I am Principal Investigator for DAPHNE (Data as a service platform for healthy lifestyle and preventive medicine)’. In addition, I am involved in industry funded projects on the effectiveness and mechanisms of new anti-diabetic drug treatments. I work collaboratively across these EU projects and also have collaborations with research groups in Australia and United States. To date I have authored and co-authored more than 30 peer reviewed publications, won 5 awards and, since 2013, I have been granted more than £650,000 research funding as Principal Investigator.

I believe the integration of different types of expertise is essential in research on the multi-faceted issue of obesity

Being on the NIU board is the second committee position (outside of the university) I have been involved in – the first was as a Student Representative for Physical Activity for Health theme within the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences (BASES). The major action points for the NIU this year have been to increase the involvement of NIU on social media including the NIU Facebook page and New Investigators United Twitter feed @EASOresearch, and organising the programme and speakers for the 2016 NIU Summer School.

The aim of the Summer School programme is to give a broad view of obesity. The session is intended for students/ researchers who are new to the area, or have in-depth knowledge of one topic but are interested in developing a broader perspective on obesity. We have also added new programme themes vital for training young researchers/clinicians, including research grants/proposal writing and strategies to get impact from your work. Furthermore, delegates will have an   opportunity to present their own work and get feedback from both peers and the renowned speakers who will be present. There is no other arena like this for new obesity researchers to learn and have substantial interaction with such a broad range of distinguished professionals in Europe.

My future career plans are to become a strong independent academic. I have recently been appointed a permanent member of academic staff and will thus be able to engage in more research-led teaching alongside continuing to build a reputation as a strong researcher in the area of physical (in)activity and energy balance.

I currently live in Leeds, in the north of England but I’m originally from Manchester – both are often cold, wet and grey, but on those scarce clear spring days we have some of the best countryside to  explore! These two cities are about 1 hour apart and both are 3-4 hours from London and are well connected with very good airports and train routes. I was an extremely active child, always running – never walking – and I wanted to try every possible sport/activity. I tended to favour team sports over individual sports, but also just enjoyed exercise and continue to do so to this day. I still play Gaelic football and tag rugby, though more for the social aspects than a level of competition these days! I spend lots of time at the gym, where I do a variety of aerobic and resistance training 6-8 times per week.

New Investigators United Spotlight: Sonia García Calzón

Hello Sonia. Please tell us a bit about yourself:

I was born in 1986 in Logroño, a small city located in the North of Spain. Maybe you have heard of Logroño; it is famous for lovely Rioja wine. When I was 18 I moved to Pamplona to begin University studies in Pharmacy, Nutrition and Dietetics at the University of Navarra. I chose this course of study because I enjoy health promotion and the clinical aspects involving treating patients, but even then I was already becoming interested in research. Therefore, when I got my degrees I decided to do a Masters Degree in Research, Development and Innovation of New Drugs which really awakened my interest in science. Afterwards, I started my PhD studies in the Department of Nutrition and Food Science at the University of Navarra, where I received my PhD in January 2015. I have been working as a Postdoctoral researcher in the same department and plan to begin a postdoc abroad in the upcoming months.

We would love to learn more about Spain and the area you live in:

-what is it like?

I live in Pamplona, a lovely small city surrounded by mountains, located in Northern Spain along the Pilgrim’s Way to Santiago. The city was founded by the Romans and is now a modern city with a high quality of life offering a wide range of activities including walking around century-old walls and cobbled streets; relaxing in parks and terraces; tasting delicious tapas – pinchos as they’re known locally, and visiting historical monuments. Tourists from all over the world come to Pamplona in July to enjoy San Fermin Festival known worldwide for the Bull Run (Running of the Bulls).

How did you come to enter this field?

My master’s project was about childhood obesity. I participated in a lifestyle intervention with obese children and their parents, and there I discovered that we have much work to do in tackling obesity, which affects a large number of people worldwide. I wanted to do my bit in obesity and that is why I undertook PhD studies in this field. My specific research interests are genetics and epigenetics in metabolic diseases, particularly obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Congratulations on winning the 2015 EASO New Investigators Best Thesis prize. Please help us learn more about your thesis and present research interests:

Thank you very much. In my thesis project, I looked into the association between telomere length, which is considered a biomarker for aging, and adiposity traits in different age groups. We found that an intensive weight loss intervention resulted in an increased leukocyte telomere length and also we proposed the assessment of leukocyte telomere length as a potential biomarker for changes in adiposity. Moreover, the results from my thesis clearly show that dietary and genetic factors can modulate telomere shortening associated with ageing.

This work contributes to the field of obesity because it may help to improve personalised dietary recommendations according to genetic background, to impact ageing (as telomere length is considered a biomarker for age), reduce adiposity, and therefore age-related chronic diseases. Telomere attrition could become a possible target in nutritional interventions to prevent the progression of metabolic diseases. Interestingly, telomere length may be a biomarker for metabolic alterations and therefore it should be highlighted the possible role of telomere length in the onset of obesity.

Excellent. What are your future career plans?

I want to continue research; the next step in my career will involve doing a postdoc abroad in epigenetics and metabolic diseases. Last year I did a short-stay at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm in the epigenetics field where I discovered the key role of epigenetics in the pathogenesis of complex diseases such as obesity and diabetes. I am very interested in working in the epigenetics field because it is relatively new and is a revolutionary concept in genetics, and is also essential to understanding regulation of genes and gene-environment interactions. I believe that in the near future, it could present solutions for the prevention and treatment of metabolic diseases, such as obesity.

Fascinating, thank you. Aside from your professional interests, what are your hobbies and interests?

I like doing sports, especially playing tennis or going hiking on a sunny day. I also love reading and travelling – I enjoy discovering and exploring new places and cultures. I am very sociable and enjoy meeting with friends whenever possible to share wonderful times together.

Report on the EASO YIU Summer School: Obesity – a multi-systemic disease

Teodora Handjieva-Darlenska, MD, PhD, representative of YIU from EASO’s Southern region.

This 2-day Summer School focused on the development of knowledge and skills in the field of obesity research. The School covered all the different aspects of obesity: from basic research to common metabolic and reproductive complications. Moreover, we had representatives from different parts of Europe (lecturers and participants).

The programme was divided into two main parts: lectures and practical trainings.

Read the full report on the EASO YIU Summer School