It’s the breakthrough that could tip the scales in favor of people battling obesity. Gareth Lim (’96) from the University of British Columbia made headlines last year when he led an international team of scientists who discovered how a certain protein influences the amount of unhealthy “white fat” associated with diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
How will the discovery of this gene change the way we view obesity?
This discovery further adds to the growing body of knowledge that highlights the complexity of this disease. We normally think of obesity as being caused by over-eating and low amounts of physical activity, but there are clear genetic links as well. It has been known for some time that the amount of 14-3-3zeta is actually higher in “bad” fat from obese individuals, but our study shows a clear role of 14-3-3zeta in the ability to influence how much fat will be present in a mouse.
The gene, which encodes the protein 14-3-3zeta, was silenced in tests on mice resulting in a 50 percent reduction of “white fat.” Dr. Lim and his team theorize that by suppressing the gene or blocking the protein, they could prevent fat accumulation in people who are overweight or at risk of becoming so. In this Q&A, Dr. Lim discusses the significance of his study and how it could pave the way for possible drug therapy to treat obesity.
What were the original objectives of your study?
We initially wanted to get a better understanding of how 14-3-3zeta controls various functions in the body and, more specifically, the pancreatic beta-cell. Beta-cells release the master hormone insulin, which is essential for controlling blood sugar levels. Insufficient amounts of insulin leads to diabetes. We were inspired by our previous studies that found that decreasing or increasing levels of 14-3-3zeta in beta-cells could cause beta-cells to die or live, respectively. By using genetically engineered mice that completely lack the gene for 14-3-3zeta, we wanted to know whether the complete absence of this gene would cause diabetes in mice.
What kind of treatments could be developed to treat obesity in light of your discovery?
It is very important to note that my discovery is still very far away from being able to be used as an obesity treatment. Much more work is required to figure out how to harness this discovery. At this time, we can only speculate that making a drug to target 14-3-3zeta in fat cells could be a way to stop individuals from gaining more weight.
What further career ambitions do you still hope to realize?
I hope that in the near future I will be able to continue pursuing my passion in research. More specifically, I hope to start my own research lab to further pursue my interests in diabetes and obesity, while training, mentoring, and inspiring students who may be drawn to a careers in biomedical research.