Chinese experts are looking for ways to block a human "fat" gene variant in order to treat obesity. But the treatment, if proved, may be years away.
"Recent studies have unequivocally associated the fat mass and obesity-associated (FTO) gene with the risk of obesity," said Chai Jijie, a research fellow with the Beijing-based National Institute of Biological Sciences, in a paper published Thursday in the latest issue of Nature.
"We are now focusing our study on identifying FTO-specific inhibitors," Chai told Xinhua Tuesday.
If successful, lead researcher Chai and his co-workers' study might finally help the obese slim down.
The FTO gene, sitting on human chromosome 16, packs on the pounds when it shows up in a variant form.
Scientists from across the world have confirmed since 2007 people of different cohorts carrying the FTO gene variants are more susceptible to obesity.
According to Chai, recent studies have suggested a higher risk of obesity caused by FTO variants in humans through increased food intake and reduced satiety.
A study in 2007 offered an easier way to grasp the connection between the gene variant and obesity.
The study, conducted by a group of British scientists, showed adults who carry two copies of the FTO gene variant weighed on average three kilograms more than those who don't.
Chai said about 12.6 percent of Chinese possessed both copies of the "fat" gene variants, in contrast with 45 percent of Europeans, quoting a study conducted by a group of Taiwan researchers in 2008.
But despite the lower frequency in Chinese people, he said "the effect of this FTO variant on body mass index is similar to what has been observed among Europeans."
In the paper, Chai and his colleagues described the crystal structure of the FTO protein, saying the structural study of the FTO gene might "serve as a foundation for the rational design of FTO inhibitors."
"If successful, we will test the effects of the inhibitors on animals," Chai said.
But he added that any therapy for obesity based on their studies could be years away.
"One thing is for sure - It will be a long way to go before obesity can be treated by targeting FTO, even if it turns out to be a valid target in the end," he said.
The prevalence of obesity has been increasing at an alarming speed in China over recent years.
A report posted on the Ministry of Science and Technology website said the country now has an obese population of more than 90 million, about 7 percent of the country's total population.
More than 200 million Chinese are overweight, the report said, adding that China's obese population will exceed 200 million within ten years.
Worldwide, about 2.3 billion adults are expected to be overweight by 2015 and more than 700 million obese, according to the World Health Organization.
Obesity raises the risk of diabetes, hypertension, cancer and premature death.