Anyone, who followed the US elections, may have heard Gov. Palin’s remark on the considerable public money that is being “wasted” on studying the fruit fly (for the YouTube video of her statement click here).
Good thing Gov. Palin did not also mention “worm” research, especially research on the lowly c. elegans, a 1 mm long nematode (round worm), which has been extensively used as a model organism in biomedical research. Because, as it turns out, a genetic mutation found in this worm may hold the key to a novel target for obesity treatments – at least according to a paper by Patrick Narbonne and Richard Roy from McGill University, Montreal, Canada, just published in Nature.
C. elegans, like many other organisms can survive harsh environmental conditions for extended durations by changing their metabolism in ways that essentially allow them to live off their fat stores seemingly forever (a state referred to as “dauer” that can last for six months).
Narbonne and Roy found that C. elegans larvae that lack a certain signaling pathway (the LKB1/AMPK pathway to be precise), which is activated during dauer, quickly downregulate fat mobilization so that lipid reserves are rationed to last the entire duration of the arrest.
In contrast, worms that have a mutation in this pathway enter dauer, but then rapidly burn up their fat stores and die prematurely.
By better understanding how this pathway works and assuming that a similar pathway is present and effective in humans, it may be possible to target this system in order to promote fat mobilization and oxidation in people with overweight and obesity.
Obviously this still is a long stretch and will take a lot more work to understand if and how this system actually works. From there to finding a drug that is safe and effective is of course a whole other venture.
Nevertheless, this work nicely demonstrates how fundamental work in seemingly primitive and irrelevant organisms (like a primitive worm) can perhaps lead to completely new targets that may someday prove to be helpful in finding novel treatments for the biggest health problem of our times.