So here’s something: scientists might have just found a way to let you stuff your face without putting on weight. It’s got to do with a single gene known as RCAN1 which, when disabled in mice, allowed them to gorge on high fat foods for prolonged periods of time without gaining calories. Researchers think a similar approach might also work for humans, and they’re hoping to develop a pill that could be used to combat obesity.
"We know a lot of people struggle to lose weight or even control their weight for a number of different reasons,” said lead researcher Professor Damien Keating of Flinders University, as reported by Science Daily. “The findings in this study could mean developing a pill which would target the function of RCAN1 and may result in weight loss."
Those findings were published last month in the EMBO Reports science journal, with researchers from Flinders University and the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center concluding that, “Mice deficient for RCAN1 have an elevated metabolic rate and are resistant to diet‐induced obesity.” That’s because RCAN1 acts as a feedback inhibitor for certain metabolic processes: notably, something called “non‐shivering thermogenesis” (NST) which essentially “expends calories as heat rather than storing them as fat.” NST is “championed as an effective way to combat obesity and metabolic disease”, the study notes. So when RCAN1 is taken out of the equation, calories that would have otherwise been stored as fat get burned away instead.
To put it another way, Damien explains that blocking RCAN1 helped the body transform white fat—the fat that stores energy and leads to obesity—into brown fat—which produces heat and burns calories, FierceBiotech reports.
“Removing RCAN1 had two major effects,” said Damien. “It reduced the storage of fat in dangerous areas around the belly, for example. And then in muscle it actually [caused] muscles to burn more calories at rest.”
The study’s authors point out that there’s a time and place for RCAN1’s role in preventing calories from being burned: namely, back when food was scarce and calories weren’t so readily available. In the modern world of “caloric abundance”, however, too much fat is being stored and real health problems are ensuing as a result. The researchers suggest that “These adaptive avenues of energy expenditure [such as RCAN1] may now contribute to the growing epidemic of obesity.”
"We looked at a variety of different diets with various time spans from eight weeks up to six months,” said Damien, “and in every case we saw health improvements in the absence of the RCAN1 gene.
“Mice on a high-fat diet that lacked this gene gained no weight.”
The National Health and Medical Research Council has provided funding to extend the research and “continue to explore viable options”, The Australian reports. As far as Damien’s concerned, the research shows that “we can potentially make a real difference in the fight against obesity."
“The ideal would be to take some sort of pill that didn’t require you to watch your diet, that didn’t require you to exercise,” he says. “Now, that might seem like a pipe dream, but the findings that we have out of this mouse study at least indicate a novel pathway that we might be able to target.”