UBC scientists discover gene that could be possible cause of obesity

WATCH: UBC researchers discover potential “obesity gene” which could lead to drug therapy for those dealing with weight issues. Elaine Yong reports.

A group of scientists at the University of British Columbia (UBC) have discovered a gene that could be a possible cause of obesity.

This gene is found in every cell in the human body and encodes a protein called 14-3-3zeta. Using mice, the scientists found when they silenced the gene, it resulted in a 50 per cent reduction in the amount of unhealthy white fat. This fat is associated with obesity, heart disease and diabetes. All the mice ate the same amount of food, but the fat reduction occurred anyway. Mice that were bred to have higher levels of the 14-3-3zeta protein were noticeably bigger and rounder, and had an average of 22 per cent more white fat when fed a high calorie diet.

The scientists say that the discovery of this direct link between a protein and fat production could lead to a possible drug therapy. By suppressing the gene or blocking the protein, scientists theorize they could prevent fat accumulation in people who are overweight or gaining weight.

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“People gain fat in two ways – through the multiplication of their fat cells, and through the expansion of individual fat cells,” said Gareth Lim, a postdoctoral fellow in UBC’s Life Sciences Institute, in a release. “This protein affects both the number of cells and how big they are, by playing a role in the growth cycle of these cells.”

Lim, along with James Johnson, a professor of cellular and physiological sciences, began investigating the 14-3-3 family of proteins four years ago as it often shows up in the unhealthy fat tissue of obese people.

“Until now, we didn’t know how this gene affected obesity,” Johnson said. “This study shows how fundamental research can address major health problems and open up new avenues for drug discovery.”

Obesity has been linked to increased risk of diabetes, heart disease and some cancers. Worldwide, obesity costs society $2 trillion every year. More than one in four Canadians are obese and the rate is also increasing in children.

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