In two separate studies published in Nature, British and American scientists say they have found the location of a molecule that helps stimulate the appetite. Researchers hope the findings may help design new treatments for obesity and anorexia.
In their studies, scientists from drug giant SmithKline Beecham and from the University of California showed how the SLC-1 molecule in the brain binds to melatonin-concentrating hormone or MCH, a vital compound in regulating food intake and energy.
Although doctors have known that MCH needs a receptor to attach itself in the brain, until now, they had not located it.
"We know that MCH, from the work of other scientists, is involved in feeding behavior and now that we have the receptor for it, we can take the first steps to develop drugs to treat obesity and related disorders," SmithKline Beecham research scientist Jon Chambers told Reuters.
New drugs could be designed to block the action of MCH at the SLC-1 receptor. Scientists hope to design a molecule that would interact with the receptor to prevent MCH's stimulatory effect.
"It's a whole new approach that we can take to try to treat obesity," said Shelagh Wilson, one of the co-authors of the British study.
Olivier Civelli and his colleagues from the University of California in Irvine reported similar results.
"Knowing how this receptor works will help us understand the complex ways in which the brain directs eating behavior and may result in new pharmaceuticals that can treat obesity and eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa," Civelli said in a statement.
Obesity is a chronic disease that increases sufferers' risk of getting other illnesses such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer and digestive disorders.
Experts estimate that 60-80 million Americans are obese. Almost one-third of people living in Europe are overweight and more than one in 10 are obese.
People with a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or more are considered obese. BMI is measured using a person's weight and height.
The discovery of the SLC-1 receptor resulted from SmithKline Beecham's genomic research. The scientists cloned the protein and then screened it against potential targets.
However, the research is still in the very early stages, scientists say. And even if a drug is found, it will be at least a decade before it reaches the market.