UK scientists shed light on obesity genetics

In collaboration with the Press Association

A collaboration between UK scientists has provided a new insight into the so-called 'obesity gene', which triggers weight gain in some people.

Obesity is known to increase a person's risk of developing several forms of cancer, as well as having other serious health implications. The 'obesity gene' is a particular version of a gene called FTO. It has previously been shown to increase a person's chances of becoming obese.

Now, researchers from Cancer Research UK, the University of Cambridge and Oxford University have found that the gene instructs cells to make an enzyme that can directly modify DNA, suggesting that it may be involved in switching other genes on and off.

In addition, they found that it is highly expressed in the hypothalamus - the part of the brain involved in hunger control - and levels of the enzyme are influenced by feeding and fasting.

Commenting on the findings, which are published online in Science Express, Professor Stephen O'Rahilly, who led the Cambridge team, said: "This is the first glimpse into the possible mechanisms whereby this very common genetic variant might influence a person's risk of obesity.

"The finding that FTO is an enzyme with these actions on DNA is very surprising and a lot of work is still needed to work out how its actions influence body weight.

"The finding that FTO may have some involvement in the control of the function of the hypothalamus suggest that, like other obesity genes previously discovered, it may play some role in the influencing how well the brain senses hunger and fullness."

Sara Hiom, Cancer Research UK's director of health information, said: "This is an important piece of research.

"We know that obesity increases people's risk of developing a range of cancers as well as other diseases, and the increasing number of people who are overweight will have significant implications for cancer in the future.

"Unravelling how this gene works is very exciting and may one day lead to new treatments for obesity. However maintaining a healthy body weight through a balanced diet and regular physical activity is important for general health as well as reducing the risk of many cancers."