Study links genetic variant to lower obesity risk

The research, with ties to central Pa., offers hope for people struggling with their weight.

  • Brett Sholtis

(Danville) — Research published in the journal Science finds that the presence of certain genetic variants in DNA leads to a decreased likelihood of being obese — a finding that offers hope for those who struggle with their weight.

Some Geisinger health system patients in central Pennsylvania are among the nearly 650,000 volunteers in the United States, the United Kingdom and Mexico who participated in the research by donating blood samples.

The research found that people with one genetic variant are on average 12 pounds lighter than the general population, said Dr. Christopher Still, who heads Geisinger’s Obesity Research Institute. Those people are 54% less likely to be obese than the average, the study found.

Still noted that it’s well understood that a person’s genetic makeup plays a role in the likelihood that they’ll be overweight.

“And this really bolsters that, from a genetic standpoint, there are specific genetic mutations or variants that may protect against obesity, but also may cause obesity — and so that’s what’s really exciting,” Still said.

The peer-reviewed study was led by Regeneron Genetics Center, which is part of the publicly traded pharmaceutical company Regeneron. The research concludes that treatments could be developed to fight obesity by targeting parts of specific genes, known as “exomes.”

The research shows promise, but the success of treating obesity by targeting these genes is not guaranteed, according to University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health geneticist Ryan Minster, who was not involved in the study.

“That’s because the human body itself is extremely resistant to losing weight,” Minster said. “Beyond that, most of us live in social, physical and occupational environments that foster weight gain.”

Minster pointed out that the gene encoding leptin was mapped in 1994 in mice and humans, “and human variation in it was shown to be connected to early-onset obesity in 1997. It was expected to be a huge breakthrough in weight management, but its promise hasn’t borne out in the ways it was expected to.”

Regeneron recently announced a partnership with AstraZeneca to develop a medication targeting the genetic variants, Minster added, a sign that “a good deal of money will be invested in investigating this.”

Minster said this could provide a new way to treat obesity, but shouldn’t be a replacement for investments in public health infrastructure.

“Folks at some of the greatest risk of obesity live in communities where investment and opportunity into infrastructure and activities that prevent weight gain are limited or don’t exist,” he said. “Some of those folks are participants in this study. They’ll certainly be targeted to buy pills.”

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