Pennington Biomedical Research Collaboration Targets Obesity Causes in Two of the Largest Genetic Studies to Date

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Studies could lead to better treatments for obesity
Released: Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Baton Rouge, LA – Pennington Biomedical Research Center released the results of the two largest-ever genome-wide studies of obesity which could lead to a better understanding of the causes of the disease and to new evidence-based treatments. The results provide researchers with better clues about what kind of genetic factors contribute to obesity as well as the genetic factors that play a role in where fat is stored in the body.

Published in the current edition of Nature, one of the world's foremost scientific journals, the results surveyed nearly 340,000 people for the genetic markers of obesity and compiled the work of more than 400 researchers and their laboratories from around the world—the largest study of its kind to date.

"For the first time ever, we are finally starting to see a stable set of genetic markers that defines the risk of obesity," said Dr. Tuomo Rankinen, associate professor of human genomics at Pennington Biomedical. "With this information, we can begin looking at the bigger picture of obesity and start targeting its causes and underlying pathways with more precise therapies."

In the first of two publications released this week in Nature, "Genetic studies of body mass index yield new insights for obesity biology," researchers from Pennington Biomedical and their colleagues discovered 97 new genetic factors that contribute to obesity, 56 of which were discovered for the very first time. Through the use of DNA and clinical data from 339,224 research study participants, including some from Pennington Biomedical's HERITAGE Family Study, scientists isolated areas of the human genome encoding sequences expressed in the central nervous system and the brain which contribute to obesity. These findings may provide a foundation for research aimed at more effective weight loss treatments tailored to each patient.

In the second of the publications, "New genetic loci link adipose and insulin biology to body fat distribution," Pennington Biomedical researchers and their partners found 49 genetic markers, 33 of which were previously undiscovered, which contribute to where body fat is predominantly stored in the body. Scientists analyzed the waist-hip ratio of 224,000 individuals and pinpointed new genetic markers that contribute to fat accumulation in the waist and hips. Interestingly, nearly half of these genetic markers display a stronger effect in women than men. Since fat stored around the abdominal area is a dangerous trigger of common chronic diseases such as diabetes, these new findings may provide new insights on prevention and treatment.

"The major lesson from these two very large studies is that we now recognize how complex the genetics and the biology of diseases such as obesity and abdominal obesity are. The same degree of biological complexity is also seen for other diseases, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer and dementia. It took the power of genetics to understand their extraordinary complexity," said Dr. Claude Bouchard, professor and the John W. Barton Sr. endowed chair in genetics and nutrition at Pennington Biomedical.

"This pioneering work has the power to transform the way in which we treat obesity," said Dr. William T. Cefalu, executive director of Pennington Biomedical. "These kinds of global collaborations drive research forward and allow our researchers even greater ability to deal in solutions."

Pennington Biomedical scientists Dr. Claude Bouchard, Dr. Tuomo Rankinen and Dr. Mark Sarzynski contributed to this research.


The Pennington Biomedical Research Center is at the forefront of medical discovery as it relates to understanding the triggers of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and dementia. It is a campus of Louisiana State University and conducts basic, clinical and population research. The research enterprise at Pennington Biomedical includes approximately 80 faculty and more than 25 post-doctoral fellows who comprise a network of 44 laboratories supported by lab technicians, nurses, dietitians, and support personnel, and 13 highly specialized core service facilities. Pennington Biomedical's more than 500 employees perform research activities in state-of-the-art facilities on the 222-acre campus located in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.