Tipping The Scales: The Power Of Genomics To Tackle The Obesity Crisis

Worldwide obesity has nearly tripled since 1975. To tackle this issue, governments worldwide have unveiled a host of obesity-curbing legislation, with cheap fast food, large serving sizes, and sedentary lifestyles targeted. Yet, new research from BGI Group and the Chinese Academy of Sciences suggests innovations in genomics could be the answer to tackling this growing crisis.

In 1975, obese children were almost unknown outside of the developed world, with only 0.3 per cent of people in developing nations aged 5 to 19 categorised as obese. 40 years on, and that figure has soared, with over 340 million children and adolescents aged 5-19 now considered overweight or obese.

Adults are equally affected by this crisis. Indeed, scientists project that by 2030, nearly one in two adults will be obese, and nearly one in four will be severely obese.

What Or Who’s To Blame?

Ballooning waistlines are often blamed on our “obesogenic environment”, with the abundance of cheap fast food, large serving sizes, and sedentary lifestyles pointed to as the main culprits.

As Kimberley Neve, a Research Assistant at the Centre for Food Policy, explains, “Even people trying really hard (to lose weight) are thwarted in their efforts by unhealthy food options that are everywhere – they’re easy to find, cheap to buy, quick and appealing.”

Seeking to tackle this issue head on, governments worldwide have unveiled a host of obesity-curbing legislation. For instance, in April this year, the UK government brought in new rules for large restaurants, pubs, and bakeries to list the number of calories in each individual dish on menus and food delivery websites. This followed a sugary drinks levy in 2018, and a £10 million advertisement campaign that emphasised the benefits of keeping fit.

Legislation to change our “obesogenic environment” may go some way towards tackling the obesity crisis. However, new research published in Nature from BGI Group and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, together with research teams from China, Singapore, Germany, Italy, the UK, Sweden, and Spain, has found that cutting down on processed foods and taking up exercise is only half the story, with innovations in genomics paving the way towards combatting obesity.

Since 2006, genome-wide association studies have discovered there are more than 50 genes associated with obesity. This means that people with certain genetic mutations will always struggle with their weight, regardless of how much they exercise or restrict their diet. In practical terms, a 2007 study found that people with a genetic make-up that increases their risk of obesity weigh on average 3kg more than those with the lowest risk, and also have 15 per cent more body fat.

Building on this body of research, the scientific research team used state-of-the-art single-cell sequencing technology to study the genetic make-up of macaque monkeys, which share 95 per cent of their DNA with humans. Hoping to deepen understanding of cell function and organ composition, the team led by BGI-Research produced the most comprehensive map of non-human cells to date, which revealed different gene expressions inform the key characteristics of cells. Critical to our understanding of obesity is that the research helps identify which cells have developed faults that can prevent the cells from effectively metabolising calories – a key factor contributing to obesity.

The Implications Of The Study Are Significant

Paving the way for personalised medicine, the research, published in Nature, has set the stage for developing treatments for obesity that can target specific cells to help improve heat metabolism.

The study has profound implications for other healthcare issues. From Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s to cancer and Covid-19, the single-cell technology used by BGI Group, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences provides an unparalleled insight into the inner workings of the body to reveal valuable clues for treating disease.

This is because single-cell technology has radically improved our map of non-human cells. Just as improvements to geographic maps from 15th Century parchment maps to Google Maps software has deepened understanding of the Earth’s geography, maps of cells produced with single-cell technology can open the door for understanding and treating disease.

It is clear over that the past 50 years, worldwide obesity has nearly tripled, with obesity growing to epidemic proportions in both industrialised and developing countries. While for decades the focus for treating obesity has been changing lifestyle through diet and exercise, BGI Group’s study suggests genomics is set to play a critical role in tackling this growing crisis.

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