Scientists may have discovered a new gene that controls weight gain, which they believe could be a cure for obesity.
Obesity is a global epidemic, according to the World Health Organisation. In 2014, more than 1.9 billion adults aged 18 years and older were classed as overweight. Of these, more than 600 million were obese.
Researchers at MIT and Harvard Medical School have analysed the genetics behind obesity. They discovered a new pathway that controls human metabolism by prompting fat cells to store fat or burn it away.
Scientists believe that while poor diet and lack of exercise are contributing factors in obesity, genetics also play a part.
Senior author Manolis Kellis, from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), said: "Obesity has traditionally been seen as the result of an imbalance between the amount of food we eat and how much we exercise, but this view ignores the contribution of genetics to each individual's metabolism."
Previous studies recognise that obesity is associated with a gene region known as FTO - anyone whose BMI (Body Mass Index) is high, will often carry a variant of the FTO gene.
Researchers discovered that FTO (the obesity gene) turns on two other genes which prevent fat from burning.
After analysing the control switches across more than 100 tissues and cell types, researchers believe they could switch off the gene and prevent the body from storing fat, by burning it instead through a process called thermogenesis.
To switch off the gene, they propose using a gene editing technique which basically removes the unwanted DNA code and replaces it with another sequence.
"Knowing the causal variant underlying the obesity association may allow genome editing as a therapeutic avenue for individuals as risk," said Kellis.
"By manipulating this new pathway, we could switch between energy storage and energy dissipation providing new hope for a cure against obesity."
The study has been published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
A spokesperson for the World Health Organisation told HuffPost UK Lifestyle that it is "an interesting finding which provides some new evidence on the genetic basis for obesity".
"Emerging evidence on the genetic and epigenetic bases for obesity are interesting from a research perspective, and provide further evidence that the opportunity for interventions on obesity may be most effective using a life course approach," he added.
"We must remember however that children are born and develop in an ‘obesogenic environment’ and that while the ‘new science’ may provide interesting insights into the developmental origins of obesity, that only by combining the appropriate public health interventions in combination with any interventions that science may discover can we curb the growing epidemic.
"On a population level, especially in low and middle income countries, we are yet to see if these interesting research studies can be made into feasible, scalable and affordable interventions to protect, especially children, from obesity."