DNA in Books

Potential Breakthrough in Understanding the Obesity Gene

Among folks who really understand obesity, there’s a remarkable level of excitement about a potential breakthrough in understanding how the obesity gene works to cause obesity. This excitement springs from a paper published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine. Melina Claussnitzer and colleagues from all over the world have documented how the FTO gene can act to switch fat cells from burning energy to storing it.

The reason this causes so much excitement is because it fills an important gap in knowledge about the genetic basis of obesity. For decades, scientists have known — despite popular misconceptions — that obesity is very much a heritable genetic trait. And since 2007, the FTO gene has been known to be associated with obesity. But precisely how it might work to promote obesity has not been understood. The new research identifies the biological pathways through which the FTO gene can switch beige adipose tissue that burns calories into white adipose tissue that stores them as more fat mass.

Clifford Rosen, an associate editor at NEJM, says:

It’s a big deal. A lot of people think the obesity epidemic is all about eating too much, but our fat cells play a role in how food gets used. With this discovery, you now have a pathway for drugs that can make those fat cells work differently.

You can forgive senior author Manolis Kellis for expressing his excitement with a bit of hyperbole by saying:

This is perhaps the secret to curing obesity and we’re going to throw everything at it.

Fatima Cody Stanford at Harvard summed up the excitement of obesity medicine physicians by saying:

Now that we have this new information, it opens whole new avenues for research with potential to yield much more effective treatments. This doesn’t solve the problem, but it gives us much better hope for solving it.

One thing for sure, as knowledge about the physiological basis of obesity accumulates, it makes assertions that obesity is simply the result of poor eating and exercise habits seem especially ignorant.

Click here to read the research paper and here to read the companion editorial. Click here and here to read more reports about this finding.

DNA in Books, photograph © Dani Vázquez / flickr

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August 21, 2015