Gene Manipulation May Eventually Be Used to Treat Obesity, Study Says

Researchers found that turning certain genes on and off kickstarted energy burn instead of storage.

A new study from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) and Hebrew SeniorLife may have found a new explanation for why some people become obese—a discovery that could eventually lead to new treatments for the disease.

The study looked at how gene manipulation can affect weight loss, specifically with regards to energy storage—in other words, calorie storage—in body tissue. Looking at fat cells called adipocyte progenitors, which are known to have a strong link to obesity, the researchers hypothesized that altering the way the fat cells’ genes are expressed could have an impact on how they store energy.

After experimenting on two genes in the adipocyte progenitors, researchers found that they could manipulate the tissue into burning energy when it had previously stored it simply by altering gene expression, a process that would likely help overweight individuals shed excess calories and pounds if it could be adapted for humans. And, in a related study conducted by BIDMC and MIT, researchers found that manipulating specific genes in mice could boost their metabolism without affecting physical activity or appetite—leading to much thinner mice.

In a statement, lead investigator Melina Claussnitzer said the research proves that obesity does have a cellular component, which could potentially be manipulated to encourage weight loss:

“Our study provides evidence that manipulation of a specific genetic circuit has significant pro- and anti-obesity effects,” concludes Dr. Claussnitzer. “This is an important finding that shows in addition to diet and exercise, obesity may result from changes at the cellular level. This understanding could pave the way for precision medicine approaches to prevent or reverse obesity in older adults.”

Even more promising? In the BIDMC and MIT study, experiments on human fat cells in the lab proved successful. So while exercise and diet should still be the cornerstones of your health plan, your genes may someday play a much more prominent role.


Jamie Ducharme Jamie Ducharme, Contributor jducharme@bostonmagazine.com