More comprehensive and proactive treatment for anorexia could soon be the doctor's orders after Southern California researchers recently discovered a connection between the eating disorder and a specific gene using stem cell technologies.
"It's a new direction, a new clue, but it's very important [because] it's such a special technology," said Dr. Walter Kaye, the executive director of University of California - San Diego's Eating Disorders Program and a board member of the National Eating Disorder Association. He was not affiliated with the study.
An international team of scientists led by the UC San Diego's School of Medicine used genes from teen girls receiving treatment for anorexia together with stem cells to develop the first cellular model of anorexia nervosa. They noticed a particular gene across all the samples, which has previously been associated with anxiety disorders but never before with the eating disorder. Research has indicated that 50 to 75 percent of risk for anorexia could be genetic.
By investigating the cellular makeup of anorexia, experts and recovered anorexic people say a greater understanding could lead to greater treatment and decreased social stigma.
"One of the biggest things we battle in this field is that there's still a big misconception that this is a white rich girl vanity issue and not a real mental issue," said Kristina Saffran, who was diagnosed with anorexia at age 13. Nine years ago she and another girl she met in treatment co-founded Project HEAL, an eating disorder support and prevention group that now has 40 chapters worldwide. "Studies like this, that really identify the genetic component, are incredibly helpful."
Anorexia primarily affects adolescent girls between the ages of 15 and 19 and is characterized by distorted body image and a self-imposed food restriction to the point of emaciation or death. According to UCSD, the mortality rate associated with the illness for young women between 15 and 24 years old is 12 times higher than the death rate of any other causes of death for girls that age.
Although the study only involved 11 participants — seven anorexic patients and four control subjects — experts still hailed the study as an important step forward in the little-understood disorder. Researchers with the study said their findings provide a new tool to investigate the elusive and largely unknown molecular and cellular mechanisms underlying the disease.
"We don't actually have good experimental models for eating disorders," said Alysson Muotri, a professor in the UC San Diego School of Medicine and the director of the university's stem cell program. "In fact, there are no treatments to reverse anorexia nervosa symptoms."
The fact that anorexia is centered in the brain complicates the study of it, Kaye added. "The brain's not very accessible. We can't go in and look directly at it like you can at heart disease or cancer or something like that," he said. "What's exciting about stem cells is that this allowed investigators to take some skin and grow that into a stem cell and then get these stem cells to express molecules in the brain...if someone with anorexia has alterations in some of the molecular systems, that would show up in the stem cells. That's what happened here."
Further research based off of this study could lead to earlier identification of people at risk of developing anorexia and more effective treatment, Kaye said.
"We still have a long way to go for developing treatment," Saffran said. "Really understanding the disease...is incredibly important."
For more information about anorexia symptoms, treatments, and other eating disorders go to the National Eating Disorder Association's website at MyNEDA.org, contact their Live Helpline at 800-931-2237 during business hours, or text "NEDA" to 741741.