17 May, 2019

Researcher Spotlight: A Conversation with Fernando Riveros Mckay Aguilera

Fernando was involved in the largest study of its kind to date, looking at why some people manage to stay thin, while others gain weight easily.

Currently at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, Fernando shares what is was like to be part of such a study and what the impact of the findings will be.

What interested you about getting involved in this study?

I have always been interested in eating behaviour and how our genes influence this behaviour. Most people at the time had focused on “what makes people obese?” but the other question is equally interesting, “what makes people thin?”. I really liked the idea of asking what goes right instead of what goes wrong.

What research had been previously done in this area and what were the findings?

There had been a LOT of genetic research on BMI. It is quite an easy trait to measure and very relevant to public health. But as mentioned in the previous question, most studies at the time had focused on either BMI itself or obesity. To date, most of the genes for which we know the function that are involved in BMI regulation seem to be involved in appetite control. But these genes are only a small fraction of the genes involved in BMI regulation and for most of them, we still don’t know the function.

Very few studies had actually looked at thin people at the time and those that did either only contrasted them to obesity or didn’t ascertain for persistent and healthy thinness. That was the beauty of this study I think, thanks to the centralised health care system in the UK, we were able to recruit people that had been thin all their life (persistent) and that we know had no medical condition explaining their low BMI (healthy). So both of these characteristics are really nice to do a genetic study of thinness as a trait.

What were the most interesting findings from this study?

Well, the first one is that genetic variants appear to influence human thinness to similar degrees as obesity. Another one is that the same genes appear to be influencing both traits through complementary genetic variation. So basically you have a lot of genetic variants that influence BMI and each one collectively adds a bit to your likelihood of being obese. And some people just are unlucky and have lots of these genetic variants that increase your risk of being obese. Whereas some are lucky enough and they have very few of these variants. It is kind of like poker. You can have a poor hand (a high 10) or a great hand (a straight flush). If you get a high 10 you’re more likely to lose (e.g be obese) and with the good hand, you’re more likely to win. Of course, that doesn’t mean you WILL lose or win. People have lost poker games with a straight flush and won games with a high 10. But the odds are in the favour of good hands. And that’s what happens in genetics. People with a “good” genetic hand are more likely to maintain a low BMI but it isn’t a guarantee.

What impact will these findings have on people’s lives?

Hard to tell. When dealing with these kinds of genetic studies you have to walk a thin line between “blaming your genes” or “blaming the individual”.

In the end, my personal opinion is that it should at least reduce a bit of the “shame” on obesity and the “pride” on thinness as in both cases there was a degree of randomness involved that was out of their control.

Some people just have a harder time maintaining a low BMI because of their genetics. And it’s quite a difficult task for these people and there should be more empathy towards that because if most of us had the same genetic variants as that person, we would likely also be obese.

Another contribution that is more towards the scientific community which in turn will lead to improving people’s lives is that we have generated this resource that anyone can access (well through controlled access). People can use genetic data from this unique group of thin individuals to conduct their own studies.

Read more about the study here.

About Fernando Riveros-Mckay Aguilera

Currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Wellcome Sanger Institute under the supervision of Dr. Inês Barroso, he did a PhD doing genetic studies on cardiometabolic traits. Before that, he did a Masters in Biochemistry with a focus on Bioinformatics and a Bachelor’s in Genomics at UNAM in Mexico.

He is mostly interested in harnessing the potential of genetic data to improve the quality of patient care in the clinic. In particular, he is very interested in exploring how genetic studies can lead to identification of potential drug targets for cardiovascular and metabolic disease; and how these can also help in patient stratification based on genetic risk.

Follow Fernando on Twitter.

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