Physicians Hall Front

Seven new genes associated with distribution of body fat identified

Milwaukee, Feb. 10, 2017 – Researchers have identified seven new genes, and replicated some previously known genes, that appear to play a role in the distribution of fat in various parts of the body. Dr. Yi Zhang, an assistant professor of the division of Endocrinology, department of Medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) is part of a research team led by Dr. Audrey Chiu in the Division of Intramural Research at the National Institute for Health (NIH) that identified several genes that are associated with the distribution of body fat in humans.

Past studies have shown that the distribution of body fat has a hereditary or genetic component, making some people more prone to accumulation of fat in these ectopic locations. But until recently, very little was known about the genes involved in this distribution or the mechanisms by which fat cells are produced or increased in one part of the body versus another. This international research consortium combined the data of a total of 9,594 women and 8,738 men from several large studies, including a genome-wide study conducted at the TOPS Center for Obesity and Metabolic Research within the Medical College of Wisconsin in collaboration with a community partner, the TOPS Club, Inc. (Take Off Pounds Sensibly) to look for genes that were associated with the distribution of fat in various locations in the body. Dr. Zhang led the team which participated in the study by providing data from the TOPS Center, and also carried out some of the genetic analysis in collaboration with Drs. Jack Kent and Michael Olivier at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute in San Antonio.

As a result of this analysis, the group identified seven new genes that appear to play a role in body fat distribution. The researchers studied these genes further and confirmed that at least two of the genes play a role in the development of fat cells in mice.

"We are especially excited by these results because while we have long known that body fat distribution plays a role in chronic disease, we knew almost nothing of the genes involved in this process," said Dr. Zhang. “This research points the way toward identifying the specific genes and physiologic pathways involved in body fat distribution. This will help us better understand the way body fat distribution is linked to some of the most common diseases afflicting modern societies, and hopefully to new treatments and preventive strategies."

As is well-known now, risks associated with increased fatty deposits are dependent not only on the amount of fat that is present, but also on how the fat is distributed within the body. Fat that is found in locations outside the main fat depots under the skin (ectopic fat) appears to induce a greater risk of heart disease and metabolic disorders like metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes. For example, carrying more fat within the abdominal cavity (visceral fat) is linked to increased incidence of lipid disorders, metabolic disorders and cardiovascular disease. There is also evidence that other ectopic fat depots such as pericardial fat (fat around the heart) may be an independent risk factor for these diseases.

This paper was recently published by Nature Genetics.

The Metabolic Risk and Complications of Obesity Genes (MRC-OB) Project at the TOPS Obesity and Metabolic Research Center was initiated in 1993 with support from TOPS Club, Inc. (Take Off Pounds Sensibly) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Today, it represents one of the largest family-based genetic cohorts of over 5,000 individuals from approximately 600 US Caucasian families and covers the life span 6–96 years of age.

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