Untangling the relationship between genes, appetite and children’s weight

Li Chan is a clinician scientist at Queen Mary University of London specialising in the effect of hormones on child health, appetite and weight.

I work closely with children who are obese. I can tell you there is tremendous stigma attached to being obese as a child. They can be subjected to bullying at school or have low self-esteem. Children who present to clinic often dress in black and dark colours. It’s as though they almost want to be invisible.

Yet, my research informs me that weight gain and obesity aren’t just about greed and overindulgence. It can be profoundly affected by hormonal imbalances and by a person’s genetic make-up. These factors are well beyond the control and influence of any individual. 

For example, up to one per cent of people with obesity carry a mutation in a gene called MC4R. The mutation leads to an increase in appetite and a reduction in metabolism – that is the speed at which the body burns calories.

A mutation in this gene means our bodies produce an abnormal protein that sits on the surface of the brain cells that control energy balance. This abnormal protein prevents the brain from receiving the message to stop eating. In my work I’m investigating how this protein moves to the surface of cells and how it prevents the brain’s normal function where food and appetite are concerned. 

Eventually, we hope that by understanding this disruption to brain cells in obese people, we can develop new drugs or repurpose existing medication that could reduce appetite and change eating habits. For those that are dangerously obese, this kind of medication could be a cheaper, more effective and safer treatment than invasive surgery, such as gastric bypass operations. 

I hope one day children like those I see in my clinic might benefit from the development of a new generation of treatments and drugs.

I was supported by the Academy of Medical Sciences and the Medical Research Council to become a clinician scientist. I was also part of the Academy’s first SUSTAIN programme, aimed at helping more women establish their own research teams. I had just returned from my first maternity leave and was finding the balancing act rather difficult. The mentoring and coaching I received came when I needed them most and transformed my mindset. Since then, I have featured in the Academy’s MedSciLife campaign, highlighting the importance of shared parental leave, and I have even contributed to a news article in the Times.

Being able to do a job where I can ask important scientific questions, and work to find out answers, is a great privilege. As a clinician scientist, I am motivated by the prospect of discovering something new, or understanding something old, that could change treatment and health for patients like mine.   


Read more about the support offered by the SUSTAIN programme here


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