CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Most people associate a bulging waistline with poor health, and more specifically, a higher risk of developing diabetes. Surprisingly, researchers from the University of Virginia Health System have found that naturally occurring gene variations in certain people actually promote the storage of fat around the waist and robust protection against diabetes.
These unexpected findings provide a more nuanced take on the role of obesity in developing diabetes and other related conditions. This study may open the door toward more personalized medical treatments tailored to individuals. For instance, doctors could prioritize weight loss for patients whose genes put them at increased risk while placing less emphasis on weight loss for those with protective gene variants.
“There is a growing body of evidence for metabolically healthy obesity. In this condition, people who would normally be at risk for cardiovascular diseases and diabetes because they are obese are actually protected from adverse effects of their obesity. In our study, we found a genetic link that may explain how this occurs in certain individuals,” says researcher Mete Civelek, PhD, of UVA’s Center for Public Health Genomics, in a media release. “Understanding various forms of obesity is important to tailor treatments for individuals who are at high risk for adverse effects of obesity.”
As medicine continues to grow more and more sophisticated, a firm grasp of the role of naturally occurring gene variations will play a key role in ensuring patients get the best, most tailored treatments. This new study, for example, suggests that variants can simultaneously predispose some people to store fat around their abdomen – a development typically believed to increase one’s risk for a cluster of health problems called metabolic syndrome – all while protecting them from Type 2 diabetes. This makes little sense on the surface. Metabolic syndrome raises the risk of diabetes, stroke, and other serious health issues.
One metric typically used by doctors to determine if a patient has metabolic syndrome is abdominal obesity, usually calculated by comparing the patient’s waist and hip measurements. Despite that, this latest work indicates that, at least for some people, it’s not that simple. Moving forward, doctors may want to consider checking a patient’s genes to see the best way to guide these people toward better health.
“We found that among the hundreds of regions in our genomes which increase our propensity to accumulate excess fat in our abdomens, there are five which have an unexpected role,” comments Yonathan Aberra, the lead author of the study and a PhD candidate at UVA’s Department of Biomedical Engineering. “To our surprise, these five regions decrease an individual’s risk for Type 2 diabetes.”
This project also produced critical new tools that can be utilized in the future by other researchers looking to form a clearer understanding of the complexities surrounding gene variations. The complex approach put together by Dr. Civelek and his team to identify the relevant variants and their potential effects will almost certainly be helpful for future research projects concerning metabolic syndrome and other conditions. These tools may also prove invaluable in developing new and improved treatments for metabolic syndrome.
“We now need to expand our studies in more women and people from different genetic ancestries to identify even more genes that underlie the metabolically health obesity phenomenon,” Dr. Civelek concludes. “We plan to build on our findings to perform more experiments to potentially identify a therapeutic target.”
The study is published in the journal eLife.
You might also be interested in:
- Appetite genes control how quickly infants grow — may reveal obesity treatment
- Sleeping four hours or less a night can lead to more belly fat
- Intermittent fasting: Eating fewer meals may help prevent Type 2 diabetes & obesity