Discovery points at possible ‘obesity gene’; may pave way for treatment

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Researchers at University of British Columbia may have discovered a possible ‘obesity gene’, which when silenced was found to reduce a specific kind of unhealthy “white fat” associated with obesity.

During their study on mice, researchers found that this particular gene is responsible for encoding a protein called 14-3-3zeta, which is found in every cell of the body. For their study, the scientists silenced the gene in mice and this resulted in a 50 per cent reduction in fat.

The finding is important because the fat reduction occurred despite the mice consuming the same amount of food. Mice that were bred to have higher levels of the 14-3-3zeta protein were noticeably bigger and rounder, having an average of 22 per cent more white fat when fed a high calorie diet.

The study, published in Nature Communications, paves way for a possible drug therapy for obesity. Scientists theorize that by suppressing the gene or blocking the protein, they could prevent fat accumulation in people who are overweight, or are on their way to becoming so.

“People gain fat in two ways – through the multiplication of their fat cells, and through the expansion of individual fat cells,” said Gareth Lim, a postdoctoral fellow in UBC’s Life Sciences Institute. “This protein affects both the number of cells and how big they are, by playing a role in the growth cycle of these cells.”

Lim and James Johnson, a professor of cellular and physiological sciences, began investigating the 14-3-3 family of proteins four years ago as it often shows up in the unhealthy fat tissue of obese people. This study not only identified zeta as the operative protein, but demonstrated a clear cause-and-effect between 14-3-3zeta and fat accumulation.

“Until now, we didn’t know how this gene affected obesity,” Johnson said. “This study shows how fundamental research can address major health problems and open up new avenues for drug discovery.”

Obesity is linked to increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, and some forms of cancer. Worldwide, obesity costs society $2 trillion each year. More than one in four Canadians are obese, and that number continues to grow, according to Statistics Canada. Alarmingly, the obesity rate is also increasing in children.

We don’t fully understand how fat cells are made, and its clear that this information would be useful in efforts to prevent obesity, the researchers concluded.