Scientists find new risk factor for obesity in women

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While lifestyle and genetics play a role in obesity, they cannot fully account for the propensity to accumulate excess weight.

A new study from Charité—Universitätsmedizin Berlin published in Science Translational Medicine reveals an epigenetic factor associated with increased obesity risk in women.

Epigenetic Markings and Obesity

Researchers led by Prof. Peter Kühnen found that women’s risk of being overweight increases by about 44% if an especially large number of methyl groups adhere to the POMC (pro-opiomelanocortin) gene, responsible for the feeling of satiety.

Methyl groups are used to mark the DNA code to activate or deactivate genes without altering the DNA sequence itself, a process known as “epigenetic marking”.

The research team analyzed the POMC gene “formatting” in over 1,100 people and found more methyl groups attached to the satiety gene in obese women with a BMI of over 35 than in women with normal body weight.

The team demonstrated that this “formatting” happens very early in embryonic development, emphasizing the importance of the early stage of pregnancy.

Influence on Formatting

While past studies suggested that certain nutrients like betaine, methionine, and folic acid (which supply methyl groups) could affect epigenetic processes, the Charité researchers found that the “DNA formatting system” is very stable, compensating for minor fluctuations in nutrient supply.

The variability in this “formatting” seems to develop at random, making it currently impossible to externally influence methylation levels in the POMC region.

Initial studies involving four severely obese women and one man with high levels of methylation in the POMC gene showed promising results from a drug that curbs hunger.

All participants experienced less hunger and lost an average of seven kilograms, or about five percent of their body weight, within three months of treatment.

“These findings show, for a start, that a POMC gene that has undergone epigenetic changes can in fact potentially be addressed through medication,” said Kühnen.

Towards a Holistic Treatment Strategy

Despite these promising results, further large controlled studies are needed to confirm the effectiveness and safety of this treatment approach over a longer period.

Prof. Kühnen emphasizes that any such medication would need to form just one part of a holistic treatment strategy.

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The study was published in Science Translational Medicine.

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