Understanding the biology of eating disorders

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Cynthia Bulik, Professor of Epidemiology specialising in Eating Disorders at the Department of Medical Epidemiology and Biostatistics, researches eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder. Her aim is to identify the genetic and environmental risk factors, understand the biology of the diseases, and contribute to the development of more efficacious treatments.

Cynthia Bulik has been researching eating disorders since the 1980s, and has spent the past decade focusing on their genetic causes.

“We want to learn which genes contribute to the risk of anorexia and how they operate,” she says. “To do this, we are leading large international consortia, including the Anorexia Nervosa Genetics Initiative (ANGI), with around 26,000 participants. We’re hoping to get the first results at the end of 2016.”

Professor Bulik also researches treatments for eating disorders, which she says need improvement, particularly for anorexia.

“In my clinical research we have developed a couple-based model in which patients attend therapy with their partners. Partners often desperately want to help, but they don’t know how, and this causes frustration. The couple approach gives the patients and their partners a chance to work together towards recovery. And the results really do look promising.”

In the more distant future, Professor Bulik hopes her genetic research will lead to the development of new medications to treat eating disorders.

“All drugs used today in the treatment of anorexia are borrowed from other conditions, and none of them work well for our patients. Understanding the biology of anorexia is the first step towards developing effective drugs that target the root causes of the illness.”

One of the main advantages of working at KI that Professor Bulik cites is the opportunity to collaborate across disciplines.

“There are also fantastic opportunities to conduct registrybased research in Sweden,” she says.

Text: Anders Nilsson, first published in "From Cell to Society" 2015. Translation: Neil Betteridge