Scientists have found a way to allow mice to eat as much fat as they want without becoming obese. The method could one day become a way to prevent and treat obesity in humans, a serious and widespread health issue.

About a third of American adults is obese, the study in the journal eLife explains, and it is about more than just physical appearance — obesity has been linked to serious health problems like cardiovascular disease and diabetes. For this project, the researchers manipulated something called the Hedgehog pathway, a signaling system that’s involved in cell development throughout the body, and they say it was successful at “suppressing obesity” in mice, representing a possible pharmaceutical route for the weight condition.

According to the Washington University School of Medicine, that the team bred mice with genes that would turn on this pathway in the creature’s fat cells when it ate a lot of fat. While these mice did not balloon on such a diet, the control mice without the special genes did become obese.

The researchers say the Hedgehog pathway keeps the fat cells from growing beyond a certain size.

“Fat gain is due mainly to increased fat cell size,” researcher Fanxin Long said in a statement from the school. “Each fat cell grows bigger so that it can hold larger fat droplets. We gain weight mainly because fat cells get bigger, as opposed to having more fat cells.”

The new method also kept blood sugar levels low for the treated mice.

It will take some work to make the mouse method work for humans, who also have Hedgehog pathways, but “this could lead us to a new therapeutic target for treating obesity,” Long said. “What’s particularly important is that the animals in our study ate a high-fat diet but didn’t gain weight, and in people, too much fat in the diet is a common cause of obesity.”