Dr. Ben-Zvi is an assistant professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem-Hadassah Medical School. His research lab focuses on obesity and metabolic diseases, and uses bariatric (weight loss) surgery as a tool to discover new ways to treat or prevent type-2 diabetes and obesity.
Dr. Ben-Zvi studied diabetes and bariatric surgery at Harvard as a Fulbright, Rothschild and HFSP postdoctoral fellow.
Please describe your current research, the focus of your lab, and the practical implications of your research
Our lab studies obesity and everything related to it. We try to figure out what happens to the body after weight loss surgery, specifically, why and how systemic metabolism improves, or changes after bariatric surgery. What is the body capable of doing? Can we dissect the weight loss from the surgery and look for answers to questions, such as how does the gut affect diabetes? the brain? How does nutrition affect embryonic development – if the mother is obese, how does the embryo sense that and changes its development?”
We study obesity as it relates to other diseases such as diabetes, fatty liver, and even certain cancers, and explore ways to treat disease by mimicking surgery. We also look at the reasons why people fail to lose weight, what does the brain control with respect to appetite and reward to food.
Surgery creates a new metabolic state in the body not achievable in other conditions. For example, with diet or exercise you can lose weight – but surgery changes the way the stomach and brain communicate. What we are trying to learn is whether we can mimic the effect of surgery to improve metabolism, or if we can improve diabetes by increasing the level of certain hormones. Our goal is to find a cure for obesity and its resulting diseases and eliminate surgery whenever possible.
What do you enjoy most about your research?
This is a two-part answer. First, I love the fact that what we do affects many systems. We’re not studying a focused topic. Obesity is such a systemic phenomenon and there is much to learn from psychiatry, structural biology, embryonic development, physiology, and more. For example, if someone is depressed, and I can identify a brain-gut connection that relates to depression, that would create a new modality to treat depression, increase well-being, or affects appetite.
Second, what we’re doing is very practical and concrete. Our research begins in the clinic and then comes into the lab, which is adjacent to Hadassah Hospital’s. The students collaborate closely with physicians, and use mouse models for metabolic diseases and bariatric surgery. They apply mathematical tools to interpret results and design new experiments.
What does it mean to you to be part of the Zuckerman Faculty Scholars Program?
The program has created a wonderful community – it’s a wonderful group of people, and there are many opportunities for collaboration within our group. For example, together with Moran Shalev’s lab, we are studying a key protein related to obesity in the structural, physiological and clinical aspects. In all, it is truly an honor to be affiliated with such a high quality group of scientists, and am proud to be part of this significant group of scholars.
What inspired you to pursue this area of research?
My PhD mentors were very influential on my personal development and direction. My mentor in Harvard found stem cells in making insulin – this was a one-in-a-million discovery by a one-in-a- million scientist.
Where do you hope your research will have the greatest impact?
The greatest impact is in teaching and mentoring students. There are 10,000 labs working at a time, and like everybody, I hope we will take part in a key discovery. But teaching and mentoring affects many students at the same time, and if I can contribute to making them better physicians or scientists, I’ve done my job.