© 2022 Texas Public Radio
Real. Reliable. Texas Public Radio.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

SA Obesity Genome Project Tackles A Weighty Problem

Texas has one of the highest obesity rates in the nation. One in three Texas adults is considered obese. Now, San Antonio researchers are using South Texas volunteers to collect an obesity genome registry. This data bank will help tackle a weighty issue.

Stepping on the scale can be a frustrating routine for millions of people carrying around extra pounds. People like Judy Winkler of Hondo. At 5’2”, she weighed 185 pounds at her heaviest.

"I never remember a time that I wasn’t ‘little chubby girl.’ I always got picked last for everything because I couldn’t run very fast," Winkler said.

Credit Wendy Rigby / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
Volunteers submit saliva samples in this kit so researchers can catalog their DNA.

Winkler is volunteering to be part of a new obesity research tool called the TOPS Genome Registry. San Antonio’s Texas Biomedical Research Institute is teaming up with the group TOPS which stands for Take Off Pounds Sensibly. The idea is to get family histories and DNA samples from thousands of people across North America. That data will live in San Antonio. Scientists will use the information to pinpoint genetic factors that weave into diet and exercise and impact obesity.

"I think this will be an invaluable resource," stated Tony C0muzzie, Ph.D., who works in genetics at Texas Biomed. "This is the kind of effort that has potentially very long term payoffs."

Comuzzie explained the theory that extra body fat produces a sort of chronic inflammatory condition that contributes to serious health problems like vascular disease, diabetes and liver problems. While similar genetic databanks give snapshots of the population, Texas Biomed plans to follow these volunteers for years and years.

Credit Wendy Rigby / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
Anthony Comuzzie, Ph.D., and Michael Olivier, Ph.D., are Texas Biomed Genetics researchers involved in the TOPS Genome Registry.

"What this potentially allows us the opportunity to do is to follow individuals across the life course," Comuzzie added.

Elizabeth Brandt never struggled with weight before she started having children. While her parents were thin, all of her siblings are overweight.

"I thought it would be good research to look at people both who had this in their history and those who hadn’t and see if there was any kind of comparison," Brandt commented.

Volunteers spit into a vial. Their saliva will provide the crucial DNA sample. A robot in the genetics lab processes the samples collected since the program started two months ago. Texas Biomed has 10,000 DNA kits to start with, but they hope to convince tens of thousands of people to agree to help.

Texas Biomed Genetics Chair Michael Olivier, Ph.D., said there won’t be any one gene to pinpoint, but eventually, he believes physicians will be able to tailor their weight loss advice to patients based on that person’s individual history and genetics.

"Bringing in this additional genetic information and studying this aspect will help physicians to use that information more effectively to advise patients in the future," Olivier added.

Credit Wendy Rigby / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
Data for the TOPS Genome Registry will be stored in San Antonio.

When asked if there is ever going to be a magic pill for losing weight, Olivier said no. "I’m sorry for bursting that bubble.  But I think what there will be is genetic information that can help choose what may work better for you."

Anyone can volunteer for the study by filling out a questionnaire online and agreeing to a DNA sample. The participants may not know any more about their genetic makeup, but they’ll know they are contributing to research that could help future generations win the battle of the bulge.