More than a third of the adult population in the United States is obese, and children’s aren't far behind as they gain weight at a rapid pace. In an effort to slow the rising obesity rates, researchers from the University of Texas at Austin have summarized what scientists currently understand about what influences weight loss and weight gain in the body, and what the future of treatment may look like. Their findings, published in the journal Obesity, will lay the foundation for how gene sequencing may be used to treat obesity in the long term.

"We are pretty good at helping people lose weight in the short term," said the study’s lead author Molly Bray, a geneticist and nutrition professor at The University of Texas at Austin, in a press release. "But the stats on long-term weight loss are pretty dismal. We still don't understand the process of weight regain very well, either from a behavioral or a biological standpoint. The time is ripe to take this wealth of data and find ways to utilize it more effectively to treat people in need."

Bray believes the routine obesity diagnosis and treatment regimen may include patients submitting saliva samples for gene sequencing, and collecting data on patients’ environment, diet, activity, and stress from portable monitors such as FitBits. It’s becoming less expensive to perform genomic sequencing, a key tool that researchers will need to investigate which genes stimulate weight gain. Bray said scientists have already made great strides in figuring out what drives eating behavior, how fat cells are formed, and how metabolism changes before and after becoming obese, but they need a closer look into the role genes play in order to get the bigger picture and create long-term treatment solutions to the obesity epidemic.

"Obesity is one of the gravest problems of our times," Bray said. "Obviously prevention would be the best approach, but there are literally millions of individuals who are currently obese and are in dire need of more effective strategies for long-term weight loss that will ultimately improve overall health."

Bray and his research team are part of a working group created by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in an effort to personalize treatment for obesity patients. Currently, there are more than 2,500 genetic tests available, but according to the findings, it’s still unclear whether or not they can be used to identify genes driving obesity, inflammation, and insulin resistance. Because genetic data is undergoing massive overhauls in the way they are collected, stored, and utilized, researchers believe there will be a way to identify the underlying genetic causations of obesity in the near future.

"I think within five years, we'll see people start to use a combination of genetic, behavioral, and other sophisticated data to develop individualized weight management plans," Bray said. "There are going to be several genes involved with obesity, and they're going to interact with each other in complicated ways. And that's certainly true of weight loss and maintenance too."

In January 2015, President Obama announced through the NIH, that the White House would allocate $215 million to the Precision Medicine Initiative. This meant collecting genetic data from at least a million patients, and setting up new ways to share their genetic information with doctors. Sharing data means there is a greater chance of identifying the causes for certain diseases, such as obesity.

"When people hear that genes may be playing a role in their weight loss success, they don't say, 'Oh great, I just won't exercise anymore,'" Bray said. "They actually say 'Oh thank you. Finally someone acknowledges that it's harder work for me than it is for others.' And then I think they're a little more forgiving of themselves, and they're more motivated to make a change."

Source: Bray MS, Loos RJF, McCaffery JM, et al. NIH working group report—using genomic information to guide weight management: From Universal to precision treatment. Obesity. 2015.