NEW YORK: Myriad Genetics Inc said it has discovered a gene that appears directly linked with human obesity and that its structure means it could be relatively easy to develop drugs to combat the condition.
The biotechnology company, based in Salt Lake City, said the gene, HOB1, also appears to provide an important molecular link between obesity and diabetes.
The discovery may be more meaningful some other genes linked to obesity because the company discovered it by tracing its prevalence in a tightly knit human population rather than through animal studies which often have no clinical relevance in humans.
Myriad compared the DNA of people who were obese with those in the same family who were not in the population of Utah, many of whose families trace directly back to the pioneers. The company discovered a mutation in one gene that it was able to follow back through numerous generations.
What isn't yet clear is what percentage of people with the mutated gene actually become obese.
It could be high. Myriad used the same type of population studies to find two gene mutations that are associated with breast and ovarian cancer. While it is proving difficult to develop drugs against these targets, BRCA1 and BRCA2, the discovery is helpful as a diagnostic tool. When these genes are damaged, the person affected has a high risk of breast or ovarian cancer.
The company said that unlike the BRCA genes, the structure of the mutated obesity gene makes it amenable to being attacked with a small molecule drug, which means a pill rather than an injection. It may also be easier to develop drugs to compensate for the genetic mutation because the gene is too active rather than not active enough. It is easier to knock out function than to create it.
Still, the discovery is only the first step in tracing the relationship between the gene and obesity. While the company has established that the gene causes too much of a certain protein to be produced, it doesn't yet know what the protein actually does.
"A substantial amount of work needs to be done before we understand the biology behind the association between obesity and the gene mutation," said William Hockett, a Myriad spokesman.
"It's at a very early stage and will require clinical trials. Myriad's role may be just to create a drug and show efficacy and then partner it with a large drug company," he said.