Could 'Genetic Editing' Tackle the Problem of Hispanic Childhood Obesity?

San Antonio's Texas Biomedical Research Institute has received a $3 million grant from the National Institute of Diabetes to study new ways to deal with the seemingly impossible problem of Hispanic childhood obesity, and the lead researcher says Texas Biomed will investigate new ways of dealing with the issue, News Radio 1200 WOAI reports.

Dr. Melanie Carless says since much of the problem appears to be genetic, she will also investigate the new procedure known as 'genetic editing.'

"The genetic editing that we do is really in cell based systems," she said.  "So this is one way we can understand the mechanisms of obesity in cells."

An unsustainable 26% of Hispanic kids are not just overweight, but obese, a far higher rate than children in any other ethnic group.  Among Caucasian children, for example, the rate is just 14%, and among Asian kids in the U.S., the obesity rate is 11%.

Dr. Carless says the first phase of the study will involve a sample of 900 Texas Hispanic kids who have a high propensity for obesity.  In addition to examining traditional factors like caloric intake and physical activity, she will also use a test called DNA methylation, which is a process where methyl groups are added to DNA in a way that changes the expression of certain genes, and often the production of proteins.

She says this is a relatively untried experiment in studies into obesity.

"A lot of research groups have looked at genetic editing before, but nobody has really done it for studying obesity diseases."

She says the study will also involve the use of new technology called CRISPR, which alters DNA sequences, to change the cell's methylation levels to see whether the cells can be induced to create less of substances known to contribute to obesity.

"What this can do is lead to a change in gene expression, and changes in the way the cell might, for example, metabolize glucose."Dr. Carless says this research could benefit all ethnic groups, possibly leading to targeted drug therapies for obesity, and potentially, editing to correct several underlying genetic health issues at the DNA level.

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