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Letter from the Editor | 240

Obesity in the brain

The cover story of this month’s issue highlights research into obesity focused on the brain, an organ much less studied than the heart when it comes to the beneficial or harmful effects of the various types of fat on the human body.  Scientific studies published in recent years present evidence that excessive consumption of foods with saturated and trans fats could produce chronic inflammation of the hypothalamus, which is found at the base of the brain.  This could result in the death of neurons responsible for controlling the sensations of hunger and satiety as well as energy expenditure.  Researchers at the Center for Research into Obesity and Comorbidities, one of the 17 FAPESP-funded RIDCs (Research, Innovation and Dissemination Centers) are now suggesting that this brain damage could be partially reversed through the consumption of foods or compounds rich in unsaturated fat, a different type of fat that is beneficial to the heart.

One of the conclusions that can be drawn from the studies underway is confirmation that obesity ought to be viewed as a disease and not as a lack of willpower.  Lesions in the hypothalamus are probably not the only cause of the problem; there are other factors that contribute to excessive accumulation of fat. The path opened by researchers will help us understand some of the complex questions that involve obesity.

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Something new is becoming quite popular in genetic studies all over the world: the DNA editing technique called CRISPR-Cas9. The system consists in using a protein guided by an RNA molecule that cuts DNA strands at specific points to repair genetic material, deactivate genes or insert alterations.  Highlighted by the journal Science as the greatest breakthrough of 2015, the technique, discovered in 2012, continues to be developed and holds great potential for use in medical applications.  In Brazil, before geneticists could get to work, they needed to learn more about it.  Researchers from São Paulo then traveled to laboratories abroad – using FAPESP-funded scholarships and grants – to learn how CRISPR-Cas9 works, before returning home to pass their knowledge along to other geneticists.

Several lines of research are now using the technique to study diseases that range from leukemia to Marfan syndrome, with actors that range from Trypanossoma cruzi to Aedes aegypti. Studies in Brazil began not long ago and are still in their infancy but are expected to increase in volume and significance in just a few short years.  Given the ease in working with the system, the procedures are within reach of most Brazilian genetics laboratories.  As with all major innovations in the field of genetic engineering, the development has brought with it ethical obstacles that need to be resolved – one of the as-yet-unproven possibilities of CRISPR-Cas9 is its use in producing designer babies.

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The latest novelty in the field of social sciences and the humanities comes from the past.  With binational coordination at the University of Campinas (Unicamp) and the University of Versailles-Saint-Quentin, in France, a comprehensive project has revisited the intense cultural exchange that existed between Brazil and Europe in the 19th century.  It was a kind of two-pronged globalization that involved the circulation of printed works such as books, newspapers, journals, pamphlets, librettos and scores.  It’s a forgotten piece of history that is well worth learning about.