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New Michigan study could lead to better obesity drugs


We know there’s a genetic component to obesity, but until now, we didn’t know much about why some people develop complications from that obesity – like diabetes or cardiovascular disease – and others don’t.

Now University of Michigan researchers say they’ve honed in dramatically on which genes determine whether you’re predisposed to becoming obese, as well as those that determine if you’re more likely to develop additional obesity-related complications. 

This could lead to more tailored, personalized ways of treating obesity and its complications in each individual patient.

Dr. Elizabeth Speliotes led the University of Michigan study, which is published in Nature.

“So hopefully in the future, we can get a better sense of, ok well if you have this set of changes [in your genetic code] you may be more prone to develop cardiovascular disease or diabetes. But someone else, who has a whole different set of variants, may develop so-called healthy obesity.”

Speliotes says right now, doctors are sort of “shooting in the dark” when it comes to effectively treating obesity. 

She compares it to the period before doctors knew that there were different subsets and treatments for anemia, so they just told everyone with anemia to be more active. Now, she says, we understand that different kinds of anemia need different treatments.

Hopefully, she says, we’ll soon understand that there are various subsets – and treatments – for obesity, too.

“So this [study] immediately brings to the forefront new [genetic] targets for potential therapeutic interventions. I’m sure that pharma companies are going to be looking very carefully…at our data…to see if there are new targets they could go after to potentially get us new drugs for this condition.”

Speliotes says they also found that some of these newly identified obesity genes also play a role in the brain.

“So some of that affects, let’s say, feeding behavior, energy expenditure or physical activity. Well right now we don’t have drugs for those, right? So these become really interesting targets for people to go after…and give us new insights into what we should really be looking at to treat this condition.” 


Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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