Fat cells in the human body. Image: Shutterstock
Fat cells in the human body. Image: Shutterstock

Scientists at MIT and Harvard Medical School have discovered a metabolic master switch that could bring us closer to a cure for obesity.

“By manipulating this new pathway, we could switch between energy storage and energy dissipation programs at both the cellular and the organismal level, providing new hope for a cure against obesity,” Manolis Kellis, a leader of the work, told MIT News. Kellis ’99, MEng ’99, PhD ’03, is an MIT professor of computer science who is also a member of the Broad Institute.

“The net effect [of manipulating the new-found switch] is a composition of fat cells that is more amenable to generating energy and heat, and less inclined to sequester into fat stores,” writes Alice Park in Time. The research, reported in the New England Journal of Medicine, has attracted significant media attention in additional outlets ranging from the BBC (hear the interview) to New Scientist.

Funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the work is also the subject of a blog post by NIH Director Francis S. Collins. “This discovery may yield new approaches to intervene in obesity with treatments designed to change the way fat cells handle calories,” Collins writes.

He concludes, however, that genes “are only part of the story. It’s still important to eat healthy, limit your portions, and maintain a regular exercise program. Leading an active lifestyle both keeps weight down and improves the overall sense of well being.”

Finding the Switches that Control Genes Could Unlock Understanding of Disease

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