Could Gene Therapy Be Used to Treat Obesity?

Genetics research, conceptual artwork

Scientists are now finding genetic links to obesity. One gene in particular, known as FTO, has been identified as having a definite association with obesity.

Obesity Master Switch

Researchers have now discovered that the FTO gene may hold the key as to which individuals are predisposed toward obesity.

For example, scientists have discovered that the FTO gene may confer a tendency toward binge eating and development of obesity in adolescents. And in a study of nearly 1,000 patients in South Africa, scientists found four genetic markers (one of which involved the FTO gene) that were associated with higher BMI at the age of 13.

Another study looking at the effects of FTO in over 3,000 Chinese children found that the effects of FTO on higher BMI also led to an associated risk of high blood pressure (hypertension), which is known to be caused by obesity.

The FTO gene also appears to be associated with effects on appetite, food intake, and body mass index (BMI). Based on recent study results, researchers now believe that there may be a relationship between FTO, binge eating, and obesity. Some have gone as far as to call FTO the “mastermind” when it comes to genetic control of obesity and determination of future BMI.

How FTO Can “Turn On” Obesity

Certain genetic variants (think of these as different “versions” of the same gene which can be inherited) of the FTO gene have been found to be associated not only with obesity but with cancer as well—and, remarkably, many forms of cancer are obesity-associated, too.

In mice, researchers have noted that certain disorders in enzyme activity associated with FTO can turn on or off switches in other genes that regulate metabolism. This, in turn, could lead to storing fat inappropriately, or having a “slow metabolism.” This can also lead to Type 2 diabetes, which is another obesity-associated disease.

Researchers have also discovered that manipulating certain regions of the FTO gene can change body weight and metabolism in mice, including the way fat is stored—even without a change in physical activity or appetite.

Genetic Therapy to Treat Obesity

While no specific gene therapy currently exists for the treatment of obesity, scientists hope that such genetic discoveries as the FTO “master gene” will lead to targets of future treatment. Prior to that, however, much more remains to be learned about the genetics behind obesity.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
  • Claussnitzer M, Dankel SN, Kim KH, Quon G, et al. FTO obesity variant circuitry and adipocyte browning in humans. N Engl J Med 2015 Aug 19. [Epub ahead of print]
  • Liu C, Mou S, Pan C. The FTO gene rs9939609 polymorphism predicts risk of cardiovascular disease: a systematic review and meta-analysis. PLoS One 2013;8:e71901.
  • Lombard Z, Crowther NJ, van der Merwe L, et al. Appetite regulation genes are associated with body mass index in black South African adolescents: a genetic association study. BMJ Open 2012;2(3).
  • Micali N, Field AE, Treasure JL, Evans DM. Are obesity risk genes associated with binge eating in adolescents? Obesity (Silver Spring) 2015;23:1729-36.
  • Smemo S, Tena JJ, Kim KH, Gamazon ER, et al. Obesity-associated variants within FTO form long-range functional connections with IRX3. Nature 2014;507:371-5.
  • Xi B, Zhao X, Shen Y, et al. Associations of obesity susceptibility loci with hypertension in Chinese children. Int J Obes (Lond) 2013;37:926-30.
  • Zhao X, Yang Y, Sun BF, Zhao YL, Yang YG. FTO and obesity: mechanisms of association. Curr Diab Rep 2014;14:486.