Researchers are reporting a breakthrough in understanding how obesity progresses, which is providing clues for future treatments to tackle the epidemic.
In a study, researchers at Monash University in collaboration with colleagues in the United States, have revealed how resistance to the hormone leptin, a key causal component of obesity, develops.
Lead author Professor Tony Tiganis, of the Monash Obesity and Diabetes Institute and Monash University's Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, said our bodies produce leptin in response to increasing fat deposits.
"Acting on a part of the brain called the hypothalamus, leptin instructs the body to increase energy expenditure and decrease food intake, and so helps us maintain a healthy body weight," said Professor Tiganis.
"The body's response to leptin is diminished in overweight and obese individuals, giving rise to the concept of 'leptin-resistance'. We've discovered more about how 'leptin-resistance' develops, providing new directions for research into possible treatments."
Two proteins are already known to inhibit leptin in the brain and Professor Tiganis' team have discovered a third. In mice, this third protein becomes more abundant with weight-gain, exacerbating leptin-resistance and hastening progression to morbid obesity.
The study showed that the three negative regulators of leptin take effect at different stages, shedding light on how obesity progresses.
"Drugs targeting one of the negative regulators are already in clinical trials for Type 2 Diabetes, however, our research shows that in terms of increasing leptin-sensitivity in obesity, targeting only one of these won't be enough. All three regulators might need to be switched off," said Professor Tiganis.
Professor Tiganis said the more that is known about obesity, the better equipped scientists are to develop drugs to support good diet and exercise choices.
"Simply telling people to eat less and exercise more is not going to be sufficient to reverse the obesity trend. There is a pressing need to develop novel drugs that complement diet and exercise to both prevent and treat this disease," said Professor Tiganis.
The study was recently published in the journal Cell Metabolism.