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Immune system could hold key to weight loss

Immune system could hold key to weight loss

weighing scalesEating less to lose weight does not work for everyone. Now a team including Irish scientists  have discovered your immune system plays a major role in regulating body weight.

It could be responsible for as much as 40pc of your body’s ability to regulate weight.

The team of researchers who made this ground breaking discovery includes Prof Donal O’ Shea, consultant endocrinologist at St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin and Dr Lydia Lynch, associate professor at Trinity College Dublin.

Prof O’Shea explains that the immune system reacts to a sudden or rapid weight gain seeing it as a threat to survival, like an infection or a disease.

This response of the immune system contributes to the difficulties for some people trying to lose weight.

Immune system

Working with researchers from America and Canada, the Irish team found that a very common immune cell, called the invariant natural killer T cell (iNKT) helps to trigger the body into metabolising fat.

“We know that once weight is gained, for the majority of people, it is very difficult to lose that weight” says Prof O’Shea.

“It is too simplistic to say eat less, move more and the weight will come off. It doesn’t actually work like that. The body has a very powerful reaction to defend against weight loss, which we now know involves the immune system.”.

Dr Lynch describes how people who are obese often have sluggish immune systems and fewer iNKT cells which convert fat and increase metabolic rate and weight loss.

“This new knowledge opens up novel areas for treating weight loss, and will greatly enhance our ability to improve existing hormone treatments for weight loss”, she says.

Brendan’s story

Fitness instructor Brendan Quinn became obese after he developed and immune system disorder and his weigh went from 76kg to 120kg over a three to four year period.

‘I was really struggling to try to lose the weight.  I was very strict with my diet and exercise, and in theory I should have been losing weight, but it just wasn’t coming off.

“When Professor O’Shea approached me, I was very happy to try this new approach which tried to get my immune system to work better in order to then allow my body to lose weight.

“The results were almost immediate. I lost 12 kg in the first five weeks, and a total of 23 kg since I started treatment five months ago’.

Graham Love, Chief Executive of the Health Research Board, who funded the Irish arm of the research comments,

‘This is a highly significant breakthrough in understanding obesity, one of the global health challenges of our time. It will help change approaches we take to care and transform many people’s lives’.


Prof O’Shea says: “The findings should help break many of the stigmas associated with obesity, and most importantly, they could dramatically improve outcomes for patients.

“Ultimately, this research underlies the absolute importance of prevention of weight gain in the first place. This work should be used by policy makers to prioritise obesity prevention strategies, especially childhood obesity’.

The research has just been published in the journal Cell Metabolism and was funded by the Health Research Board in Ireland, the European Research Council and the National Institutes of Health, USA.

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