WEDNESDAY, Aug. 19, 2015 (HealthDay News) — Fat-burning that leads to weight loss while you sleep or relax sounds like a promise from a quack fad diet, but new genetic research into the causes of obesity suggests it might be possible.
Researchers have found a genetic “switch” inside fat cells that can speed up metabolism, prompting the body to burn off excess fat as heat energy even without exercising, according to a report in the Aug. 19 New England Journal of Medicine.
Laboratory mice lost half their body weight after researchers flipped that genetic switch. And examination of human fat cells has indicated that the process could work much the same in people, said senior author Manolis Kellis, a professor of computer science and computational biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass.
“They were eating the same amount. They were not exercising more,” Kellis said of the lab mice. “They were burning energy in the form of heat, both day and night. That tells us that we switched their metabolism from energy storage to energy dissipation.”
This newly discovered genetic pathway “would be very targetable with drugs,” said Dr. Clifford Rosen, director of clinical and translational research at the Maine Medical Center Research Institute in Scarborough, Maine.
“It is a breakthrough, and so industry is certain to latch onto looking at this much more closely,” said Rosen, who wasn’t involved in the study. However, any human trials of a fat-burning medication are at least five years away, he added.
Obesity is a global public health challenge, affecting more than 500 million people worldwide and costing at least $200 billion each year in the United States alone, the researchers said in background information with the study. Excess weight contributes to most leading causes of death, including heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and cancer.
“It’s just a plague in our society, so being able to reverse obesity can really have societal implications,” Kellis said.
Prior research has strongly linked a single gene called FTO to obesity, but up to now scientists have been unable to figure out exactly how mutations in the FTO gene cause people to pack on pounds.