Jeff Heuchert, Gazette staff
A Stratford-born professor has won two major international science awards for his groundbreaking research on obesity in the 1950s and ’60s.
Douglas Coleman, 81, will be presented with the King Faisal International Prize for Medicine at a ceremony in Saudi Arabia in March, and three months later will travel to Spain to accept the Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Biomedicine.
Coleman, who retired from his work at the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine in 1997, will share the awards with Jeffrey Friedman, a professor from Rockefeller University in New York.
The two men are credited with discovering a hormone called leptin that regulates appetite. Their work reinforced the idea that obesity can be a result of chemical and genetic factors, not just willpower and eating habits.
“Like a hole in one,” said Coleman, from his home in Maine, when asked last week how he felt to learn on the same day last month he would be receiving the two honours.
“But I really don’t like prizes,” he quickly added, “because I look around and see people that I feel have done as good of work as me and maybe better, and haven’t gotten these prizes.”
Coleman grew up in Stratford, where he attended the former Stratford Collegiate Institute. It was there he recalls earning one of his first prizes sometime around 1949-50 – the Bob Patterson award, which is still handed out each year to a graduating student at Stratford Central. He earned his chemistry degree from McMaster University and his phD in biochemistry from the University of Wisconsin.
In his studies, Coleman was able to demonstrate that normal mice are able to maintain a healthy weight in part because they produce a substance that restrains appetite. Decades later, Friedman found evidence of the gene that produces the hormone later named leptin. When he gave obese mice leptin supplements, the animals lost weight, became more active and began responding to insulin.
While their work has opened the door to the possibility of pharmaceutical treatment for rare cases of people with leptin deficiencies, Coleman said the leptin discovery was not the “cure-all for obesity” that they had hoped it might be in the beginning.
Still, their work demonstrated fat is not a passive energy-storage site as previously thought, but is an endocrine organ that produces important hormones that help regulate weight factors like metabolism and energy intake and expenditure.
Coleman said their work has opened the door to “enormous amounts of research on new hormones and how they act,” noting a few years back there were as many as 300,000 research papers related to their discoveries.
Commonly referred to as the “Arab Nobel Prize,” the King Faisal award is handed out annually in the fields of medicine, science and service to Islam by the King Faisal Foundation, a philanthropic organization founded in 1977. The Frontiers of Knowledge award is presented by the BBVA Foundation, which is affiliated with BBVA (Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria), one of Spain’s largest banks.
Coleman will receive a cash endowment of approximately $370,000 for the two awards, which he intends to donate to a scholarship at McMaster University and to the Jackson Laboratory for student training. He also plans make a sizeable contribution to the Northeast Harbor Library, where his late wife Beverly volunteered for 25 years.
Coleman was previously recognized with the Claude Bernard Medal of the European Diabetes Federation in 1977, the McMaster University Distinguished Alumni Award in 1999, and the 2005 Gairdner Foundation International Award. He was also elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1998.
In 2009 he and Friedman won the Shaw Prize in Life Science and Medicine and the next year they won the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research, the top American prize in biomedical research.
Coleman estimates he has earned a little over $5 million in awards in his lifetime, most of which he has given away in memory of his wife.