Friday, December 9, 2011

'Fat switch' hints at why people get obese fast

Scientists from Warwick Medical School have found that the body can flip a switch which is important for our metabolism. Differences in the activity of this switch may explain why some people gain weight much faster and struggle with keeping their weight balanced. The mechanism is based on an enzyme that can be flipped in an active and an inactive state. Modifying this enzyme could aid in losing weight. According to the scientists, this could be a breakthrough in tackling obesity.

The enzyme in question, which is called CPT1, works by oxidation of fatty acids. That means oxygen groups are added to fat parts, and this is needed for the body to turn them into energy. In this way, stored fat is being converted to something else. This process could help us to lose weight, but decreased activity would result in having more fat stored in the body. According to the researchers, when CPT1 is inactive, it results in a fatty liver. That in turn causes all sorts of metabolic problems, because the liver is important for our metabolism.

Flipping a switch
CPT1 works as a switch, the researchers from Warwick discovered. It's activity depends on how the cellular membrane, the little shell around a cell, is curved. Why that matters is unknown, but according to the scientists, this mechanism of determining activity could be unique to the body. Because it seems to play such an important role, it would be good to acquire more information about how this switch is regulated.

New drugs
Having discovered how our body flips a switch to determine, more or less, how much fat we are going to store, the next step is of course to make use of this mechanism. We can design drugs that flips the switch into active or inactive mode, based on the desired metabolic outcome. For obese people, we would want to activate CPT1, while for diabetes patients an inactive state would be desirable. Because diabetes patients have too high glucose levels in their blood, it's better to keep the fat, instead of metabolising it, as the body ultimately uses glucose to generate energy.

Obesity is becoming a big problem in wealthy Western societies. Because it does not appear that people will voluntarily improve their eating habits, scientists are trying to find the metabolic mechanisms that underly obesity. CPT1 is an important new target, but in earlier studies researchers have shown that certain genetic modifications can increase the risk on obesity as well. Also, our nervous system plays an important role, as shown by the effectiveness of a brain cell transplant, and the observation that an active nervous system predicts effective weight loss.

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