The role of leptin-melanocortin system and human weight regulation: lessons from experiments of nature

Ann Acad Med Singap. 2009 Jan;38(1):34-11.


Introduction: Common obesity is a multi-factorial trait, contributed by the "obesogenic" environment of caloric abundance and increasing automation, sedentary lifestyle and an underlying genetic susceptibility. There have been major advances in the past decade in our understanding of the human weight regulation mechanism and pathogenesis of obesity, abetted by discoveries of genetic defects which lead to human obesity.

Materials and methods: Reports of genetic mutations causing obesity in humans and murine models were reviewed.

Results: Humans with genetic defects resulting in leptin deficiency, leptin receptor deficiency, proopiomelanocortin deficiency (POMC), and melanocortin 4 receptor (MC4R) deficiency developed severe obesity as the dominant phenotypic feature, though these are rare autosomal recessive conditions, except MC4R deficiency which is inherited in an autosomal co-dominant fashion. Common and rare variants of the POMC and melanocortin 3 receptor genes may be predisposing factors in the development of common obesity. Recent reports of human obesity associated with thyrosine kinase B (TrkB) defect and brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) disruption, coupled with other murine studies, supported the role of BDNF/TrkB as effectors downstream of the melanocortin receptors.

Conclusion: Despite exciting discoveries of single gene mutations resulting in human obesity, most cases of obesity are likely the result of subtle interactions of several related genetic variants with environmental factors which favour the net deposition of calories as fat, culminating in the obese phenotype. The mechanisms of action of these genes in the development of obesity are now being examined, with the aim of eventually discovering a therapeutic intervention for obesity.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Body Weight / genetics*
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Humans
  • Leptin / genetics*
  • Leptin / physiology
  • Melanocortins / genetics*
  • Melanocortins / physiology
  • Mice
  • Mutation
  • Obesity / genetics*


  • Leptin
  • Melanocortins