A cure for obesity could be just an injection away after scientists at Harvard and MIT discovered that a tiny DNA tweak causes the metabolism to burn up excess fat.
Although it was thought that piling on the pounds was largely due to overeating and lack of exercise, researchers now think that genetics play a crucial role in whether fat is stored or used up as energy.
People with higher BMIs (Body Mass Index) often carry a variant of the FTO gene, which has been dubbed the ‘obesity gene.’
Now researchers at Harvard and MIT have discovered that the ‘obesity gene’ switches on two other genes which stop fat being burned up as heat – a process called thermogenesis.
And, crucially they have shown it is possible to turn off those genes using a ground breaking gene editing technique which snips out bad DNA code and replaces it with the correct sequence.
The scientists believe the technique could prevent or even cure obesity in those people with the faulty gene and negate the effects of a high-fat diet.
"Obesity has traditionally been seen as the result of an imbalance between the amount of food we eat and how much we exercise, but this view ignores the contribution of genetics to each individual's metabolism," said senior author Professor Manolis Kellis, of MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and of the Broad Institute.
"Knowing the causal variant underlying the obesity association may allow genome editing as a therapeutic avenue for individuals as risk.
"By manipulating this new pathway, we could switch between energy storage and energy dissipation providing new hope for a cure against obesity.”
In Britain, 25 per cent of adults are obese — 12 million people — compared with fewer than three per cent in the Seventies. The proportion is predicted to grow to one in three by 2030 and more than half by 2050.
To test the theory that a faulty gene was driving weight gain, researchers gathered fat samples from Europeans carrying both the ‘obesity’ variant and a normal copy of the FTO gene.
They found that in people with the variant one letter of DNA code had been replaced by another. The wrong code was causing genes IRX3 and IRX5 to turn on when they should have been off.
A pioneering project to map 100,000 genomes will revolutionise medicine in Britain Photo: Alamy
Previous studies have shown that IRX3 and IRX5 switch on during times of fat loss in the body, such as during periods of starvation to conserve fat.
Researchers used a new technology called the Crispr/Cas9 system to edit the DNA code and repair the sequence in mice and human cells. The technique sees a modified protein (Cas9) injected into the body where it can snip away specific sections of DNA.
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