SAN ANTONIO -- Jane Keller spits into a small vial in front a coffee table full of water bottles at San Antonio’s Texas Biomedical Institute. Researchers encourage her steady progress.
Keller, a now slim 73-year-old woman, said she’s struggled with dramatic weight fluctuations her entire life. Her work is part of an effort to understand why.
“My wakeup call was a heart attack,” said Keller. “It’s really an everyday fight to keep the weight off.”
Over the next few days, her saliva will be processed by a machine researchers affectionately nicknamed Odin, the first step in mapping Keller’s genome.
It’s part of a project to use a technology more than a decade old to pioneer new ways of tackling obesity.
“The genetic variance, how your DNA differs from mine, that is what we want to look at first,” said genetics chair Michael Olivier, Ph.D.
The project is part of a collaboration with TOPS, or Take Off Pounds Sensibly, to understand the genetic factors that influence weight control and susceptibility to obesity-related conditions like diabetes or high blood pressure.
The two organizations hope to collect information from at least 100,000 people, both genetic testing and surveys into lifestyle factors like diet, exercise, and environment.
Researcher Tony Comuzzie, Ph.D., said that genetic and lifestyle data can be cross-referenced to better understand how people with certain genetic profiles will respond to different methods of weight loss treatment.
“I might respond more to carbohydrates in my diet, you might respond more to fats in your diet,” Comuzzie said. “It’s the same way if you look at exercise or intervention programs.”
While researchers are collecting data from all over North America, it’s especially fitting that it’s being done here in San Antonio.
According to Metro Health, 65% of adults in Bexar County are either overweight or obese. The city’s obesity rate, which hovers near 30%, ranked second worst in the country among large cities in a recent Gallup study.
It’s a problem Olivier said can’t be fixed with a one-size-fits-all solution.
“There will never be a magic pill that can cure obesity for everybody, what there will be is information that can help,” Olivier said.
That information, they said, could someday change the way weight loss is treated.
If Olivier, Comuzzie and colleagues can understand the genetic factors that impact weight control, it may be possible to create treatments and lifestyle recommendations tailored to a patients’ very DNA.
All from a little tube of saliva.
"Whatever comes out of this, I hope it's something that can help,” Keller said.
Texas Biomed and TOPS invite anyone to participate. Those interested can sign up at www.topsgenome.org.