We’re used to seeing hype around gene discoveries, but this week’s paper-making headline can legitimately be called “big news”. Yes, the genetics of obesity is gathering column inches again. Just in time for Christmas dinner.
Britain’s got an appetite for this kind of story (okay, that’s it for the tabloid puns, I promise!). According to the Guardian, we’re the fattest country in Europe. So who’s to blame? Is this a story of individual failure to stay healthy, or is there more at work than willpower when it comes to love-handles?
The article reminded me of a story that broke back in June 2002, when Southwest Airlines announced that their larger passengers would be required to purchase two seats.
In the resulting media storm the voices fell into two camps. On one side were those arguing that obesity was a disease and/or disability and that sufferers had the right to travel with dignity and without financial penalties. On the other there were those who felt that airlines shouldn’t be financially punished by having to give a ‘free bonus seat’ to people who couldn’t be bothered to cut down on the cheeseburgers..
The same set of arguments cropped up again in the Linda McKay-Panos case in ’08. Just take a look at the comments trailing that story and you’ll catch a flavour of the debate (doh, did it again!)
There’s no single ‘gene for obesity’ – despite what lazy tabloid journalism often implies– but on the other hand there is an emerging mass of evidence for genetic influence in body shape. As much as 70% of the variation in BMI is attributable to genetic rather than environmental factors, according to the Beeb:
Where there’s a cause, there’s a company trying to track down a viable drug target and make a load of moolah. After all, most of us would rather take a little white pill to keep us slim than cut out the chocolate cake. But what’s the horizon like for therapies targeting obesity? In my next post I’ll be looking at some of the hype around gene therapies and the more out-there hoped-for social applications. If you’ve got any suggestions for ideas to explore, please comment.