UBC researcher helps identify ‘thinness’ gene

An international team including a UBC scientist believes it has found a gene that could help ward off weight gain. Getty

Is being skinny a genetic trait?

An international team of researchers, including a UBC scientist, believe they’ve found evidence of just that.

The team, which includes researchers from Switzerland, Austria and Australia published their results in the journal Cell on Thursday.

Senior author and director of UBC’s Life Sciences Institute Dr. Josef Penninger says the team discovered that the gene ALK (Anaplastic Lymphoma Kinase) plays a role in warding off weight gain.

“Most researchers study obesity and the genetics of obesity, said Pennigar in a media release.

“We just turned it around and studied thinness, thereby starting a new field of research.”

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The team pored through biobank data from Estonia, comparing the genetic makeup and clinical profiles of more than 47,000 healthy thin and average-weight people between the ages of 20 and 44 years old.

They found a mutation of the ALK gene among the thin group.

The team then performed tests, deleting the ALK gene in flies and mice.

Click to play video: 'If obesity runs in your family, you may want to start jogging'
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They found that the test subjects who had been modified became resistant to diet-induced obesity, while mice and flies who had the same diet and level of activity, but retained the gene, weighed more and had more body fat.

Researchers do not fully understand the role ALK plays in the human body, but it has been linked to several types of cancer and tumour development.

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The team now plans to conduct more research, focusing on how ALK regulates brain chemistry and balances metabolisms to ward off obesity. The team will also work to validate the results in future, more diverse human sample groups.

“It’s possible that we could reduce ALK function to see if we did stay skinny,” said Penninger.

“ALK inhibitors are used in cancer treatments already, so we know that ALK can be targeted therapeutically.”

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