Scientists Discover Gene That Controls Obesity

The discovery could lead to obesity-related treatments in the future.

ByABC News
May 17, 2011, 12:11 PM

May 17, 2011— -- British researchers have found a gene they say is linked to Type 2 diabetes and cholesterol levels and serves as the master switch that controls the behavior of other genes found within body fat. The discovery could lead to obesity-related treatments in the future.

In a study published in the journal Nature Genetics, the scientists highlight the key role fat plays in metabolic illnesses such as obesity, heart disease, high cholesterol and diabetes. If they can gain a better understanding of how it all works, they may be able to develop better drugs to treat these conditions.

In the United States, obesity-related diseases account for nearly 10 percent of medical spending; an estimated $147 billion a year. As rates of obesity rise, Type 2 diabetes has also approached epidemic levels worldwide.

Lead researcher Tim Spector, Ph.D. of King's College in London notes that there are a myriad of genetic factors associated with metabolic illnesses but the gene known as KLF14 is special because it acts as a regulator for many other genes. "Obesity is caused by a large number of genes acting together to increase susceptibility. Although all of them are of small effect on their own, by acting in concert in different ways they can have a significant effect," he comments.

It was already known that KLF14 is connected to Type 2 diabetes and cholesterol levels but until now, the extent of its role was a mystery. Spector's team clarified its mechanism by examining over 20,000 genes biopsied from the subcutaneous fat of 800 UK female twins and finding an association between KLF14 and the activity of other distant genes found in fat tissue. This proved KLF14's ability to control the other gene's influence on a range of metabolic traits, including body-mass index (obesity), cholesterol, insulin and glucose levels and highlighted the strong interconnections between these traits.

A copy of KLF14 is inherited from both parents as is the case with all genes but only the mother's is active -- a process called imprinting. That doesn't mean your mother can be blamed exclusively for your flabby arms and jiggly thighs since so many other causes influence health and weight. Some genes are even passed down from grandparents. And lifestyle habits such as how much you eat and how little you move place much of the responsibility for weight and size on the individual.

This is the first major study to show how small changes in one master regulator gene can cause a cascade of other metabolic effects in other genes. Spector says his team is working hard to understand fully how this information can be used to improve treatment of obesity-related health issues. It's possible scientists may be able to switch the gene on and off but the answer to whether that is possible is at least a decade off.