Scientists find key to obesity
Scientists find key to obesity (Thinkstock/AP)
Scientists find key to obesity
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Scientists have finally figured out how the key gene tied to obesity makes people fat. It is a major discovery. It could open the door to an entirely new approach to the problem. It could go beyond diet and exercise.
The work solves a big mystery. Researchers have known that a gene called FTO was related to obesity since 2007. But they did not know how. They could not tie it to appetite or other known factors.
Now experiments reveal that a faulty version of the gene causes energy from food to be stored as fat. That is instead of being burned. Genetic tinkering in mice and on human cells in the lab suggests this can be reversed. That gives hope that a drug or other treatment might be made to do the same in people.
The work was led by scientists at MIT and Harvard University. The results were published online. They were published by the New England Journal of Medicine.
The discovery challenges the notion that "when people get obese it was basically their own choice because they choose to eat too much or not exercise," said Melina Claussnitzer. She is the study leader. Claussnitzer is a genetics specialist. She works at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. "For the first time, genetics has revealed a mechanism in obesity that was not really suspected before." It gives a third explanation or factor that is involved.
Independent experts praised the discovery.
"It is a big deal," said Dr. Clifford Rosen. He is a scientist at Maine Medical Center Research Institute. He also is an associate editor at the medical journal.
"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, he said. With this discovery, "you now have a pathway for drugs that can make those fat cells work differently."
Several obesity drugs are already on the market. They are mostly used for short-term weight loss. The drugs are aimed at the brain and appetite. They do not directly target metabolism.
Researchers can not guess how long it might take before a drug based on the new findings becomes available. But it is unlikely it would be a magic pill. It would not let people eat anything they want without packing on the pounds. And targeting this fat pathway could affect other things. So a treatment would need a lot of testing. It must be proved safe and effective.
The gene glitch does not explain all obesity. It was found in 44 percent of Europeans. But it is in only 5 percent of blacks. So other genes clearly are at work. And food and exercise still matter.
Having the glitch does not mean you will become obese. But it may affect your chances. People with two faulty copies of the gene (one from mom and one from dad) weighed an average of 7 pounds more than those without them. But some were obviously a lot heavier than that. And even 7 pounds can be the difference between a healthy and an unhealthy weight, said Manolis Kellis. He is a professor at MIT.
He and Claussnitzer are seeking a patent related to the work. The research was done on people in Europe. It was also done on people in Sweden and Norway. The research was funded by the German Research Center for Environmental Health and others. It included the U.S. National Institutes of Health.
Obesity affects more than 500 million people worldwide. It contributes to a host of diseases. In the U.S., about one-third of adults are obese. Another one-third are more modestly overweight.

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Armed with this new knowledge, what are the next steps to finding possible cures?
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