September 30, 2019

Do certain changes in genes influence a person’s propensity to develop obesity? That’s what researchers at Texas Biomedical Research Institute, home to the Southwest National Primate Research Center, are aiming to find out in a new study.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) calls U.S. obesity an “epidemic,” with 40% of adults and 19% of children considered obese. Within children, however, there are disparities among ethnicities. Hispanic children have the highest rate of obesity at 26% compared to African American (22%), Caucasian (14%) and Asian (11%) children.

The team will be studying an area of research called epigenetics—which describes changes to DNA, RNA or proteins that are affected by both the environment and genetic makeup.

“If we start at the cellular level and then look at whole organisms like the human body and how we use energy, then we can identify pathways that are involved in the development of obesity and also potentially mechanisms by which we can intervene and treat obesity,” explained Associate Scientist Melanie Carless, PhD.

The first phase of the study will involve a group of 900 Texas Hispanic children who have a high propensity for obesity. Scientists will examine whether physical data like caloric intake, physical activity, energy expenditure, metabolic rate and glucose levels are related to another factor called DNA methylation to increase risk for obesity. In the second phase, scientists will compare changes in blood with changes in muscle tissue and muscle cells and see how these changes correlate. The third phase will involve the use of CRISPR (a new technology used to alter DNA sequences and modify gene function) to change the methylation levels in cells and see how this impacts energy use.

The information gathered from the study could lead to more targeted drug therapies for obesity, or someday, editing to correct an underlying issue at the DNA level. This could improve public health in a number of ways.

“Obesity can be a huge factor in serious medical problems including diabetes, high blood pressure, atherosclerosis and heart disease,” said Carless. “We need to understand how obesity develops at a young age and the impact this might have on health later in life. If we can start to reduce the rates of obesity in the U.S., we will start to see a decline in multiple other disorders.”

Back to top