Spotlight Interview: Ruth Loos, PhD

Ruth, please tell us a bit about yourself; where are you from, where did you grow up? Where do you live now? I see that you have had diverse training and experience – and your pathbreaking work at the MRC in the genetic aetiology of obesity moved the research paradigm forward. How did your original interest in the field develop, and how did you come to focus on epidemiology?

FullSizeRenderI’m from Belgium and grew up in a small town near Antwerp (called Schilde), in the Flemish/Dutch speaking part of Belgium, where my parents had a bakery. I am the youngest of four and have two brothers and one sister.

I did all my higher eduction at the University of Leuven, the oldest and one of the largest Universities in Belgium. Because I was keen on becoming a high school PE teacher, I decided to study “Kinesiology”. However, early in my studies my interest shifted towards more research oriented courses. After completing my BS and MS in Kinesiology, I had the opportunity to become a Research Associate in the department of kinesiology to work on a longitudinal twin study for which I tested the physical fitness, body composition and body shape of “growing” twins between 10 and 18yrs old every 6 months. This twin study piqued my interest in genetics and I learned how to perform heritability analyses. Soon thereafter, I had the opportunity to embark on a PhD focusing on the “fetal origins of adult disease” hypothesis using twins. The twin design allowed me to disentangle the contributions of genetic, maternal and environmental factors contributing to the early origins of disease.

After my PhD, I was awarded a one-year postdoctoral fellowship from the Belgian American Educational Foundation (BAEF), which allowed me to work with Dr. Claude Bouchard at the I very much enjoyed my research there and was able to extend my stay thanks to a fellowship from the American Heart Association.

After 3,5 years, I joined the then recently established MRC Epidemiology Unit, where I had the opportunity to lead the work on the Genetics of Obesity. I was fortunate that the Unit had just invested in the genotyping of 3,000 individuals from the EPIC study, which at that time (in 2005) was still very expensive. This data proved extremely valuable for the discovery of genes for obesity (and many other diseases and traits).

In 2011, I had the opportunity to return to the USA, to become a Professor of Preventive Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, where I lead a research Program that focusses on the Genetics of Obesity and Related Metabolic Traits.

Our readers would enjoy learning about your favourite activities, hobbies, and interests outside of your professional work:

I love being physically active [that must be my “kinesiology” past]. I am an avid runner; I run one loop in Central Park before work. I also sail in the summer on the Hudson River, I cycle to work (or to anywhere in New York City). I love attending performances of dance, preferable modern dance, and would also attend musicals more often if they weren’t so expensive.

I see that you are  Professor, Department of Preventive Medicine – Director, Genetics of Obesity and Related Metabolic Traits at the Ichan School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Preventive medicine is perhaps a more common designation in the USA?

I think Preventive Medicine captures the “Epidemiologists”, at least at Mount Sinai; my primary institute and work place in the Charles Bronfman Institute for Personalized Medicine. Our main data resource here is the BioMe Biobank, which is an EMR-linked biobank that currently include data from more than 33,000 individuals from New York. BioMe is extremely data rich and captures the enormous diversity of the City.

Your global reputation in obesity science is longstanding. Can you tell us about your current research interests? 

My current work focusses on rare genetic variants, that may alter protein function, and as such increase risk of obesity. With the GIANT consortium, we have identified already a few of such variants; for example a variant that is carried by 1 in 10,000 people increases body weight by around 8kg.

Another interest, sparked by a gene discovery study in 2011, is the discovery of genes that increase body weight but which nevertheless protect against diseases such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Even though I have focused my work on genetics for the past 10 years, my interest in obesity is nevertheless very broad.

Dr. Ruth Loos is Director of the Genetics of Obesity and Related Metabolic Traits Program, in The Charles Bronfman Institute of Personalized Medicine of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Her primary research interests focuses on the identification of genes and genetic loci contributing to the risk of obesity and related metabolic traits. She has been involved in gene-discovery since 2005, when ‘genome-wide association’ was introduced and has since actively contributed to many consortia that use this approach to identify genetic loci for a large number of metabolic traits. Increasingly, her gene-discovery work also focuses on the identification of low-frequency variants through the implementation exome-chip genotyping and sequencing projects, not only in individuals of white European descent, but also in those of African and Hispanic decent. ​

Besides gene-discovery, Ruth uses epidemiological methods to follow-up on established loci with the aim to elucidate the pathways through which they increase risk of metabolic disease. Furthermore, her work also assesses the public health implications of the established loci by examining their predictive value and their interaction with lifestyle factors such as diet and physical activity.