British Scientists Find the Fat Gene

How the discovery of a "master switch" gene may help fight obesity and diabetes

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The existence of a link between obesity and diabetes is well established, but until recently, scientists lacked key details that could lead to better treatment. Researchers at King's College London and the University of Oxford may have turned a corner with a recent study with the discovery of the "master regulator" gene that controls the behavior of fat in the body. The breakthrough is expected to improve not only how we understand the development of obesity but also how doctors treat a host of obesity-related diseases.

For non-genetics experts, the importance of so-called "breakthroughs" can be tough to digest. Since the 1970s, much of the genetic research being conducted addresses genomics, or the study of an organism's hereditary information. Genes basically work like switches, and the presence of a certain gene lead a person down the red hair track instead of the black hair track. Some, however, act as master switches and control processes throughout the body. Presence of a master gene serves less to send a person down a certain track than divert them entirely to a different railway line. In this instance, the line leads to diabetes, heart disease, obesity, or all of the above.

More than one in three Americans carry a gene for and suffer from obesity, a condition that scientists have long known to be linked with diabetes, though the exact relationship has proven difficult to pin down. But today's breakthrough tells how the behavior of a gene known as KLF14, previously identified as linking cholesterol levels and type 2 diabetes, informs a wide range of metabolic traits including those that affect body mass index, cholesterol and insulin levels. With this new information, medical researchers hope to create drugs that could effectively use this master switch to steer people away from not only obesity but also heart disease and diabetes. According to recent statistics from the American Diabetes Association and American Heart Association, these diseases affect the vast majority of Americans. While hardly heralded as a cure, it does bring us one step closer. Next stop: the ability to choose you child's hair color?

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.