What We Do
Because weight problems are common and can impact on a person's health and wellbeing, our aim is to find better ways to prevent and treat weight problems such as obesity. We are interested in finding out why some people gain weight more easily than others and why some people find it very hard to lose weight despite changing their diet and levels of activity.
Genes and environment
For most people, weight remains stable over long periods of time. This means they are in energy balance: that is the number of calories they consume matches the number of calories they burn. However, there is a wide variety of high calorie food available to us and because we are less active at work and at home, it is very easy to take in more calories than we burn (this is called "positive energy balance"). If we stay in a positive energy balance for a period of time, then weight increases. Reducing the number of calories we consume and increasing the number of calories we burn can address this imbalance and help with weight loss.
However, there are other important factors to take into account. Some people put on weight more easily than others. Some people find it very hard to lose weight whatever they try. We are interested in understanding this variability between people. Research into identical twins has shown that weight differences between people are strongly influenced by genetic/inherited factors. Weight problems can often run in families. For this reason, finding the genes that influence weight can be a useful way of understanding how weight is regulated. This is the aim of our research.
There are many hundreds of genes that regulate weight and tracking them down is complicated. The particular approach that we take involves looking for genes that are having a major effect (are highly penetrant) by investigating children who become severely obese at a very young age. It is very unusual for children under the age of 10 years to become very heavy. One reason can be that a particular gene/group of genes is not working because there is a defect/mutation in the gene. When we identify a gene that we think is likely to be the cause of someone's weight problem, we have to find out what it does and why it is not working. This involves our team in the laboratory who test the function of the protein made by the gene. It is also why we often ask patients to come to Cambridge to help us with our investigations. Some of our scientists investigate how the genes work in the brain, how they send chemical signals that regulate our weight, and test out potential ways to rescue the genes that aren't functioning to find new treatments.