‘Skinny gene’ offers hope to those battling the bulge

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Sometimes, science confirms what we feel we know.

It appears there is a genetic reason why skinny people stay slim.

In new preliminary research published in the journal Cell, scientists have isolated a gene that appears to help keep skinny people slim, potentially providing new treatments for obesity.

“We all know these people – it’s around one per cent of the population,” said senior author Josef Penninger, director of the Life Sciences Institute and professor of the department of medical genetics at the University of British Columbia.

He told sciencedaily.com: “They can eat whatever they want and be metabolically healthy. They eat a lot, they don’t do squats all the time, but they just don’t gain weight.”

Prof. Penninger’s team analysed DNA and clinical data from the Estonian Biobank, comprising 47,102 people aged 20 to 44, uncovering genetic variants in the ALK gene of thin individuals.

They concluded the gene may be involved in weight-gain resistance.

When they extended their study, the researchers found flies and mice without ALK remained thin and were resistant to diet-induced obesity.

“We gave the mice (what amounted to) a McDonald’s diet. The normal mice got obese and the ones without ALK remained skinny,” Prof. Penninger said.

“If you think about it, it’s realistic that we could shut down ALK and reduce ALK function to see if we did stay skinny,” he said.

“ALK inhibitors are used in cancer treatments already. It’s targetable. We could possibly inhibit ALK, and we actually will try to do this in the future.”

The New Daily science editor John Elder says the mouse studies suggested ALK also played a role in the brain “by instructing the fat tissues to burn more fat from food”.

The ALK gene makes a protein called anaplastic lymphoma kinase, which is involved in cell growth and has been investigated in cancer research.

Prof. Penninger’s study observed genetic maps of people with a BMI (body mass index) below 18 and compared them with those of people of normal weight.

University of Cambridge researchers had already concluded: “The genetic dice are loaded in favour of thin people and against those at the obese end of the spectrum.”

Stephen O’Rahilly, professor and head of the department of clinical biochemistry and the director of the Metabolic Diseases Unit at the University of Cambridge, said the new research “certainly increases interest in ALK7 inhibition as a therapeutic strategy for the treatment of obesity”.

Obesity is a major issue in western nations, where more than half of adult populations are at risk of disease because they are overweight. Diets loaded with added sugar and sedentary lifestyles are often cited as causes, but previous studies found “considerable individual variation in weight within a population that shares the same environment”.

Studies focused on overweight individuals indicated “variation in body weight is largely influenced by our genes”.

Prof. Penninger’s group turned the tables.

“Everybody studies obesity and the genetics of obesity,” he says. “We thought, ‘Let’s just turn it around and start a new research field.’ Let’s study thinness.”

Prof. Penninger says the findings are not “the ultimate answer”, but important “starting points”.

Are you one of those people who can eat what they want without piling on the kilos? Or do you know someone like that?

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Written by Will Brodie


Total Comments: 13
  1. 0

    I don’t possess the skinny gene. I have however stayed slim all my life… it is hard work. Because inside every thin person there is a fat one dying to get out!!! The difference is how much you care about yourself and how healthy you want to be as you age. Life gets tough as we age… add extra kilos and every organ muscle bone suffers reducing quality of life. With all my free time and superannuation I’m getting out there exploring the world no pain no health issues.

  2. 0

    I am overweight, have been all my life, will be forever. My skinny friend (same age) eats far more, and far worse, than I do and never exercises but stays skinny. Not fair!

  3. 0

    Me,overweight.its going down slowly.Find its the beer and wine put it on….and on.No in between snacks helps to.

  4. 0

    I have the opposite problem, I can’t put on weight! Though I may have skinny gene anyway, as I am really back to the weight i was when I was in my 20’s! Mind you, I did have an undiscovered health problem which may have caused the weight loss over the last few year years.

  5. 0

    Unfortunately I have been endowed with the fat gene, battled all my life to keep it down which has not been fun. Now overweight

  6. 0

    Inactivity and overeating is the cause of all obesity. Most people these days are extremely lazy and eat all the time. They load themselves up with processed food which is rubbish too.

  7. 0

    It s easy for people to judge others who have no actual weight problem. It is complicated. Some lose weight who do not want to and have a problem trying not to get too thin which is a huge worry when their weight plummets to 40 kilos. At the other end of the spectrum you have those who count calories and have less than the recommended number of calories and still cannot lose weight. Some eat a lot and put on no weight even when they need to. Overeating May be the cause for some who are obese but it is certainly not the answer for all. So, don’t judge!

  8. 0

    I totally agree with Paddington. Being overweight or obese is complicated and can be caused by hormones, including insulin. When I was younger I used to believe in the calories-in-calories-out mantra, but after menopause things changed. I’m still active, eat less than I did before but have put on about a kilo a year and I’m 10 kilos overweight and can’t shift it. I could always control my weight by dropping down to 1200 calories for a week or two but 1200 calories is maintenance calories for me these days and I put weight on if I go higher for more than a week. I eat healthy, whole fresh foods and only have a very small amount of pasta once a week & rarely have bread because starchy, processed carbs stack the weight on for me. I only drink alcohol on special occasions about six times a year. I would need to go very low on calories to lose weight but I don’t want to miss out on nutrients & I would be too hungry. Someone is bound to say I don’t exercise enough but I brisk walk at least 30 minutes a day and either do weights, other strength exercises or stretches or several hours of gardening at least 5 days a week. As Paddington says, don’t judge.

  9. 0

    a study to inhibit ALK7 … sign me up!

  10. 0

    This is simply another ‘get out of jail free card’ i.e. its not your fault you’re fat, its your genes!

    Genes only indicate a tendancy, not a certainty. You can overcome your genetic makeup and be a healthy weight. But you have to work at it. The vast majority choose not to.

    Just think about the fact that say 40 – 50 years ago, (even 20-30 years ago) we did not have the same problems with obesity. Our genes did not change in that time period but our diets certainly did, the way we work did, the way we travel did, the way we do household tasks did, how much exercise we do did (nothing to do with going to the gym) the way we source, prepare and eat food did, the foods available did, and a hundred other changes. There may be many reasons so many people are fat, but blaming it on genes is rubbish for most. Granted there are a few for whom some medical problem (or the medications they take) can affect weight, but they are in the great minority.

    We have to stop finding excuses and accept that the majority of fat people are fat because of what they put in their mouths or the mouths of their children. Personal responsibility is missing. Your genes don’t shop – you do!

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