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Hougland On PWS Research: The Right People Asking The Right Questions

Dr. James Hougland is doing PWS research on the enzyme GOAT, which plays a role in activating the hunger hormone ghrelin. Learn more about him here!

the-right-people-asking-the-right-questions-hougland-on-pws-research.jpgDr. James Hougland is a multi-award–winning biochemist at Syracuse University and recipient of a 2013 BIG Grant through the Foundation for Prader-Willi Research. FPWR funded his study on ghrelin O-acyltransferase (GOAT), an enzyme that modifies ghrelin. We reached out to Dr. Hougland to find out more about how he chose a career in science and his perspective on PWS research. We're excited to highlight him in our blog — read on to find out more about the man behind the project!

Driven By the Need To Know How Things Work

Dr. Hougland has always been interested in the science and research fields, and wanted to understand the rules that control how the world functions. He describes himself as "not just curious about how things work, but unable to bear not knowing how things work!" Currently at Syracuse University, one of his areas of research is studying the enzyme GOAT, which plays a role in converting the hunger hormone ghrelin from its inactive to its active state. He became interested in Prader-Willi Syndrome when he learned of the possible role of ghrelin in PWS hyperphagia. His hope is that by developing new molecules that affect the enzyme that activates ghrelin, we will be able to better understand how these pathways function and possibly open the door to therapies targeted at ghrelin activity.

Focus on PWS, GOAT and Ghrelin

Dr. Hougland says the funding that he received through FPWR and the One SMALL Step initiative has allowed his lab to make significant progress in the last year in studying GOAT, which is a rather challenging enzyme to work with. He is hopeful for the future of his research for PWS. He says that his research is currently aimed at developing inhibitors of GOAT in order to decrease ghrelin levels in the bloodstream and ghrelin related hunger signaling. Once developed, the inhibitors can be used to better understand how ghrelin levels affect appetite in PWS, and could possibly lay the groundwork for a potential therapy.

Research and the PWS Community

Dr. Hougland deeply values getting to know individuals and families of the PWS community, saying that it helps him to understand the impact that his work has beyond academics. He tries to reinforce that impact to his students as well. In 2014 FPWR provided support for undergraduate Ariana Garagozzo, who has a sibling with PWS, to intern in the Hougland lab at Syracuse University

When asked if he has a message for the PWS community, Dr. Hougland says, “I’m still a relative newcomer to PWS research, but I’m seeing a large community of researchers from a variety of fields (medicine, biology, chemistry, etc.) come together to study and understand PWS. The most important step in addressing scientific challenges is to assemble the right people asking the right questions, and my sense is that we’re well on our way towards that goal.”

Outside of the lab, Dr. James Hougland has been happily married for over 10 years and is a father to two small children. He enjoys cooking, and reading scientific and alternative history. 

FPWR Enewsletter

Topics: Research

Alice Shapley


Alice, mother to Anna, interviews PWS researchers for the FPWR Researcher Spotlight section of the website and the FPWR blog. She has also served as a parent advocate grant reviewer for FPWR since 2014, and has fundraised for One Small Step walks since 2013. Alice is a professor of astronomy at UCLA and enjoys using her science background to connect PWS researchers and other parents. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, Edwin, also a professor at UCLA, and their two beautiful children, Anna and Jacob.