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Fat Gene Discovery Could Result in New Diet Drugs


New information about an overactive fat gene named FTO could be important in the realm of obesity and diet drugs. Researchers from Oxford University say they have found a direct connection between the fat gene and increased body weight, a discovery that could one day result in new diet drugs.

The FTO fat gene has previously been linked to obesity

In 2007, researchers announced that a genetic variant in the FTO gene was associated with the likelihood of obesity. People who have two copies of the variant, which includes about 16 percent of all Europeans, were found to be 6.6 pounds heavier on average than individuals without the genetic variant. A study in 2008 also reported that FTO variants common among European populations are also associated with obesity in ethnic Chinese and Malays in Singapore.

Now scientists have bred mice to possess extra copies of the FTO gene, and discovered that the altered, otherwise healthy mice ate more and become fatter than unaltered mice. According to one of the study’s authors, Professor Frances Ashcroft, at the University Laboratory of Physiology, Oxford and a Fellow of Trinity College, Oxford, “This work makes us confident that FTO is an important gene that contributes to obesity.”

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More specifically, after 20 weeks, female mice that had two copies of the FTO fat gene were 22 percent heavier than unaltered female mice, while male mice with the fat gene were 10 percent heavier. The study’s authors noted that in humans with and without extra copies of the gene, weight differences would probably not be as dramatic.

Results of the study, which appears in the journal Nature Genetics and was funded by the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust, may eventually lead scientists to develop new ways to tackle obesity.

Obesity is a global problem. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that approximately 1.6 billion people ages 15 years and older were overweight in 2005, and at least 400 million adults were obese. WHO also projects that by 2015, approximately 2.3 billion adults will be overweight and more than 700 million will be obese. Obesity can lead to diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

“We can now think about developing drugs that turn down the activity of the FTO gene as potential anti-obesity pills,” noted Ashcroft. While the new information about the fat gene may not put a new diet drug on the shelves any time soon, Ashcroft noted that “there’s no certainty of success, but it’s an enticing prospect.”

Church C et al. Nature Genetics, published online Nov. 14, 2010; doi:10.1038/ng.713
Tan JT et al. Diabetes 2008 Oct; 57(10): 2851-57
World Health Organization