CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (Ivanhoe Newswire) – You eat healthy, and you exercise, yet the numbers on your scale just nudge their way up. If you wonder why your health habits mirror that of a friend’s but she’s skinny and you are not, researchers at the University of Virginia say genes may play a big part, and now, they’ve identified specific genes that may be making some people fat, and others that help people stay thin.

With more than 41 percent of Americans considered obese, it’s a critical question – when diet and exercise fail, what else can people do to get to a healthy weight?

“We really need to develop drugs that are safe and that can be used for the average person,” says Professor of Genomics at UVA Health, Professor Eyleen O’Rourke, PhD.

Researchers at the University of Virginia have taken the first step by studying a tiny invertebrate, a worm called C. elegans, that has a very similar genetic makeup to humans. The scientists have identified 14 genes that may put people at higher risk for gaining weight.

Professor O’Rourke explains, “So, if you eat the same as your cousin that doesn’t have that variant, you are more likely to become obese.”

The researchers have also identified three gene variants that may do the opposite. People with these genes can eat more and maintain a healthy weight.

With specific targets identified, Professor O’Rourke says researchers can develop drugs that would inactivate the genes, which in turn, could accelerate weight loss.

Professor O’Rourke says the gene discovery could also open the way for researchers to test drugs that are currently FDA-approved for other uses, to see if they impact the obesity genes. By the way, the worm, C. elegans, is used in genetic studies because they have more than 70 percent of the same genes as humans.