The journal Nature reports that some lab mice have lived out my food fantasy: Even though they ate a heavy, high-fat diet — my particular dream is unlimited Ben & Jerry’s — they did not become obese, because researchers found a novel way to tweak their metabolism.
Sigh. The caveats first: What works in mice might not in humans. It might not be safe. Clinical trials are not on the immediate horizon. This is no reason to stop eating healthy food and exercising.
But we can dream, right? And we can savor the explanations from Dr. Barbara Kahn of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School, senior author on the Nature paper. She sums up: “We found an enzyme in fat that appears to be elevated in people with obesity and diabetes. And if we inhibit it in mice, we can increase the amount of energy that the animal burns, and thereby decrease the amount of calories that are stored as fat.”
It’s something like the extra energy you burn when you exercise, she said — except without the exercise.
Dr. Kahn’s team found a gene that, when suppressed, makes metabolism less efficient — which is actually a good thing if you’re trying to avoid obesity.
“Generally, in our lives, we think it’s good to be efficient — and it certainly is good to be efficient in time management,” she said. “But if your metabolism is efficient, it means you need fewer calories to generate the energy that cells need for their basic metabolism, and therefore, if you eat too many calories, you will put on weight. But if the cells are inefficient, they’ll burn up those extra calories and you won’t put on weight.”
So do these findings — centering on an enzyme known as nicotinamide N-methyltransferase or NNMT — indeed hold the promise of some sort of drug to prevent or treat obesity?
“The approach we used in the mice was mainly prevention,” Dr. Kahn said, “but the same idea should work for treatment of obesity. I have to caution, of course: one has to look into all the safety aspects if one considers such a treatment in humans. But all the cellular machinery is there, so it should work.” Continue reading