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Tuesday, 1 January, 2002, 00:26 GMT
Gene treatment puts block on fat cells
fat stomach
Could the fat-building process be interrupted?
Scientists may have identified a way in which doctors could interfere with the development of the body's fat cells.

However, a panacea for the modern epidemic of obesity appears still some way off, despite the advance in the US.

Two researchers from Harvard University found that a gene called PPARgamma appears to play a vital role in creating new fat cells, or adipocytes.

In theory, if this two-stage process could be interrupted in the human body, patients might be less likely to lay down new fatty tissue, although the consequences of such tinkering are unknown.

A cell called a mesenchymal stem cell responds when the body needs somewhere to store extra fat.

It turns first into a "pre-adipocyte", then onwards into a fat-filled adipocyte.

PPARgamma seems to be important in the second developmental phase.

Blocked in laboratory

Dr Bruce Speigelmann created cells in the laboratory which were lacking functional PPARgamma - and found that without the gene, the cell was unable to transform itself into an adipocyte.

Using the latest techniques, Dr Heidi Camp, from the biotechnology firm Sangamo, was able to precisely control which forms of the PPARgamma gene were functional or non-functional in particular cells.

She found that one form in particular, PPARgamma2, held the key to the fat cell development process.

Honing techniques

If anything, it is the refinement of techniques to control whether or not a gene works, which is encouraging doctors.

Although targeted gene therapies, which precisely alter particular genes in human cells, have the potential to help doctors treat a wide spectrum of serious diseases, doubts remain over their safety and effectiveness.

Sangamo is developing "zinc finger DNA-binding proteins", (ZFP-TFs) which can selectively repress the activity of even different forms of the same gene.

Edward Lamphier, Sangamo's chief executive officer, said: "The data clearly show the precision with which ZFP-TFs can regulate endogenous gene expression, which may lead to the development of novel approaches to the treatment of human disease."

Although scientists may have discovered a possible way to regulate the development of fat cells in the laboratory, the biggest hurdle to overcome now is the safe delivery of the technique to give clinical benefits to people prone to obesity.

Fatty generation

As many as one in five adults in the UK and almost as many children are now deemed to be obese.

This places them at risk of a number of illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes.

At present, doctors advise that a sensible diet and exercise are the best ways to prevent obesity and reduce the risk of these diseases.

The research was published in the journal Genes and Development.

See also:

05 Jan 01 | Health
Childhood obesity soars in UK
18 Jan 01 | Health
Obesity asthma risk
09 Feb 01 | Health
Toddlers getting fatter
15 Feb 01 | Health
Obesity rate triples
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