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Genes Pinpointed for Common Childhood Obesity

Study Suggests Genes Play a Role in Early Life Weight Gain
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

April 8, 2012 -- An international team of researchers says they've found at least two new gene markers that appear to increase the risk for common childhood obesity.

Little is known about the gene markers, which sit on chromosomes 13 and 17. But they are positioned close to and within genes that are thought to be involved in how the gut functions.

What?s more, the markers do not appear to be active in obese adults, leading researchers to conclude that they exert their influence within the first years of life.

"We see a clear genetic signature to childhood obesity, showing that there?s more than just an environmental component to the disease," says researcher Struan F.A. Grant, PhD, associate director of the Center for Applied Genomics at The Children?s Hospital of Philadelphia, at a news conference.

The study is published in the journal Nature Genetics.

The discovery of a genetic component to childhood obesity does not mean a child who inherits these gene markers is fated to be fat.

Instead, the new markers help explain why obesity runs in families. They may also help explain why some kids, given the roughly the same diets and patterns of physical activity as their peers, may pack on pounds while others stay relatively slim.

"If we can understand how inherited risk factors change susceptibility to obesity -- what's different about the biology of people who are resistant to obesity vs. those who are susceptible -- we would get clues for new therapies or interventions that could be safer and more effective than what is currently available," says researcher Joel Hirschhorn, MD, PhD, director of the Center for Basic and Translational Obesity Research at Children?s Hospital Boston, in an email.

"It's very, very exciting," says Nancy Copperman, MS, RD, director of public health initiatives for the North Shore-LIJ Health System in Great Neck, N.Y.

Tracking Genes Linked to Childhood Obesity

For the study, researchers took a new look at genetic information collected from more than 5,500 obese children and 8,300 normal-weight kids in the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Australia.

Advanced gene mapping techniques pinpointed seven markers that were more common in the obese children than in the lean kids. Those risk areas had also previously been linked to adult obesity.

In addition, they identified two new risk areas that appeared to be unique to childhood obesity. One area was near a gene on chromosome 13. The other was within a gene on chromosome 17. In addition, they found a degree of evidence to support the possible role of two other gene markers.

Assuming the genes act on their own, researchers say inheriting the marker near the gene on chromosome 13 would increase a child's odds of becoming obese by 22%. A child with the other marker would have a 14% increased risk of obesity.

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