A global effort that includes researchers in Baton Rouge has identified 97 new genetic factors that contribute to obesity and 49 genetic markers that determine where fat is stored in the body.

“For the first time ever, we are finally starting to see a stable set of genetic markers that defines the risk of obesity,” said Tuomo Rankinen, associate professor of human genomics at LSU’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge. “With this information, we can begin looking at the bigger picture of obesity and start targeting its causes and underlying pathways with more precise therapies.”

Researchers at Pennington, which specializes in nutrition research and trials concerning health and chronic diseases such as obesity and diabetes, are among 400 worldwide who worked together, officials said. The researchers published their findings in an article this month in Nature.

“Obesity is a worldwide epidemic associated with increased morbidity and mortality that imposes an enormous burden on individual and public health,” according to the article.

That burden can be measured in both human and financial tolls, with Louisiana serving as an example.

Alisha Prather, Pennington Biomedical’s communications director, said obesity and diseases related to it cost patients, medical facilities and Louisiana’s state government enormous amounts of cash.

The American Diabetes Association reported that related diseases cost people and agencies in Louisiana more than $5.4 billion last year, Prather said.

Caregiving, a journal published nationwide, estimated care for Louisiana’s Alzheimer’s and dementia patients cost $2.3 billion in 2013, she added.

Five years ago, $2.9 billion was spent in Louisiana for treatment of obesity, according to the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention, an arm of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“If you take just these three diseases, they are costing Louisiana more than $10.6 billion a year,” said Prather.

Pennington officials emphasized the study of nearly 340,000 people worldwide by more than 400 researchers may lead to evidence-based treatments that could help people and reduce medical costs.

Another 224,000 people were studied to pinpoint genetic markers that may contribute to storage of fat in people’s stomachs and hips.

“The major lesson from these two very large studies is that we now recognize how complex the genetics and the biology of diseases such as obesity and abdominal obesity are,” said Claude Bouchard, professor and the John W. Barton Sr. endowed chair in genetics and nutrition at Pennington Biomedical.

“The same degree of biological complexity is also seen for other diseases — including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer and dementia,” Bouchard said. “It took the power of genetics to understand their extraordinary complexity.”

“These kinds of global collaborations drive research forward and allow our researchers even greater ability to deal in solutions,” added William T. Cefalu, executive director of Pennington Biomedical.

Research at the Baton Rouge center is conducted by about 80 faculty members and more than 25 post-doctoral fellows across a network of 50 laboratories. More than 500 lab technicians, nurses, dieticians and support personnel work at those labs on the 234-acre campus.