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(Oct. 3, 2002, Gazette)

Getting the skinny on fat

Dr. Guang Sun
Photo by Chris Hammond
Dr. Guang Sun


The battle of the bulge is becoming an epidemic in Canada – over 50 per cent of Canadians are overweight and about 15 per cent of adults 20 to 64 years of age are obese. While overeating may initially seem to be the problem, scientists are investigating the role that genetics plays in determining our body weight.

Dr. Guang Sun, assistant professor of Medicine, Division of Genetics, recently received a CFI grant to purchase equipment for a DNA microarray facility to assist in his research. This facility, the first of its kind in Newfoundland, allows Dr. Sun and his team to measure approximately 20,000 genes in one gene chip in each experiment.

Since the human genome contains between 35,000-40,000 genes in total, that means that each experiment can focus on about half the number of genes in the body, a far larger number than is feasible with other methods. This means that the chances of isolating the genes linked to obesity are much greater than ever before. Dr. Sun feels that this will revolutionize biomedical research, and provide future benefits to health care as a whole.

Dr. Sun’s short-term goals entail an experiment involving young adult males, some overweight and some within the normal weight range. He intends to study the effect of endurance exercise on the gene expression profiles of the skeletal muscle and fat tissue. He hopes to discover the genetic reasons why overweight people seem to have so much trouble losing the weight, even when they incorporate diet and exercise into their daily lives.

Although many people believe that obesity is caused by overeating and a lack of exercise, Dr. Sun pointed out that genes play an important role.

“Your body weight is at least partly determined by your genetic background. There’s a setting point in your body, that’s difficult to overcome.” He explained that in the future, individualized medications may allow doctors to create a new “setting point” in the bodies of the overweight, essentially overriding their genetic predisposition to obesity and making it easier to control body weight.

And shedding the pounds will help prevent other illnesses as well. Dr. Sun noted, “excess body fat will cause many other health problems like Type II diabetes, certain kinds of cancer, and cardiovascular diseases like heart attacks and hypertension.”

Not only does obesity endanger the health of the individual, but it also increases the burden on our already strained health care system. Dr. Sun hopes that, by furthering the knowledge of the genetic link to obesity, his research will be of benefit to all.

For more information, or to volunteer to participate in Dr. Sun’s study, you can contact him at gsun@mun.ca or by phone at 777-6454.