An “obesity drug” may be closer than we think. In a new study, researchers from the University of Queensland in Australia show that obese and overweight fat tissue contains disproportionate levels of an inflammatory protein. According to the study's authors, this means that obesity is an inflammatory disease and that its symptoms may be treated with anti-inflammatory medication.

Published in the Federation of American Societies of Experimental Biology (FASEB) Journal, the paper analyzed abdominal fat tissue taken from overweight and obese humans and rats. The researchers found that all samples contained abnormal levels of the protein protease-activated receptor 2 (PAR2), which modulates some of the body’s inflammatory responses. According to senior author David Fairlie, this discovery could inspire new strategies against obesity and its associated health risks.

"This important new finding links obesity and high fat high sugar diets with changes in immune cells and inflammatory status, highlighting an emerging realization that obesity is an inflammatory disease," he said in a press release. "Drugs designed to block certain inflammatory proteins, as in this report, may be able to prevent and treat obesity, which in turn is a major risk factor for type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, kidney failure, limb amputation, and cancers."

Aside from identifying a possible therapy target for patients struggling with obesity, the discovery also illuminates a biomarker for general metabolic dysfunctions. In addition, Fairlie and his colleague’s study may come to broaden the current understanding of the disease itself. "We know that eating too much and not exercising enough makes you overweight, and then obese, but why?” Gerard Weissman, editor-in-chief of FASEB Journal, told reporters. “The bottom line of this report is that obesity is an inflammatory disease, and inflammation plays a greater role in the downward spiral to obesity than most people realize.”  

The study thus recalls a number of previous inquiries into possible biological factors behind obesity and excessive weight. Another notable example is a 2013 study from Charite-University Medicine in Berlin, in which researchers show that some weight gain may be attributed to a faulty appetite hormone. Both studies add support to the theory that obesity is not merely the result of extra calories.

"It appears that once we can control the inflammation, we can begin to get everything else in line,” Weissmann concluded. “Fortunately, these scientists have already identified one promising compound that seems to work."

Source: Junxian Lim, Abishek Iyer, Ligong Liu, Jacky Y. Suen, Rink-Jan Lohman, Vernon Seow, Mei-Kwan Yau, Lindsay Brown, and David P. Fairlie. Diet-induced obesity, adipose inflammation, and metabolic dysfunction correlating with PAR2 expression are attenuated by PAR2 antagonism. FASEB J December 2013 27:4757-4767; published ahead of print August 20, 2013, doi:10.1096/fj.13-232702