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Tuesday, 4 December, 2001, 00:13 GMT
Hunger hormone identified
Obese man
Obesity is linked to heart disease, diabetes and cancer
Scientists have identified a hormone that regulates appetite.

The discovery has raised hopes of a breakthrough in the treatment of obesity and anorexia.

Researchers at Imperial College, London, UK, have found that the growth hormone ghrelin has an effect on whether a person is hungry or not.

They believe that levels of the hormone could be increased to encourage people with anorexia or patients with cancer or Aids, who have lost their appetite, to eat.

I think this is a pretty important breakthrough

Prof Steve Bloom, Imperial College London
Similarly, levels could be decreased or blocked to reduce the amount of food people with obesity may want to consume.

Dr Alison Wren and colleagues at Imperial College first identified the effects of the hormone during tests on rats before continuing their study on humans.

As part of their trial, nine volunteers were infused with ghrelin on one day and with saline the following day.

On both occasions they were presented with a plate of food, comprising four normal-sized adult portions.

They found that all of the participants ate 30% more than normal after they had received the hormone. The volunteers, who were not told what was being infused, also reported being much more hungry.

Dr Wren said that while the study was small, the findings, which were presented at the Society for Endocrinology's annual meeting in London, were significant.

Long-term benefits

"Nobody has ever found something in the body's circulation that regulates appetite before," she told BBC News Online.

"Although this was quite a small scale trial, it was clear that all of the volunteers ate much more."

Dr Wren suggested that the finding could have long-term health benefits.

"Obviously in a modern society, obesity is one of the biggest causes of morbidity and mortality. This could be used to block the action of the indigenous hormone and may be useful in the treatment of obesity."

Professor Steve Bloom, from Imperial College, described the finding as significant.

"I think it is pretty significant because the hormone was originally discovered to be responsible for quite a different purpose. I think this is a pretty important breakthrough," he told BBC News Online.

See also:

03 Dec 01 | Health
Obesity 'not linked to childhood'
20 Dec 00 | Medical notes
Eating disorders
25 Feb 00 | Health
Long-term impact of anorexia
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