A group of researchers from the University of British Columbia have discovered a gene that could be a cause of obesity.

The gene helps create a protein called 14-3-3zeta, and is found in every cell of the body.

When the UBC research team silenced the gene in mice, it resulted in a 50 per cent reduction in a kind of unhealthy fat, called "white fat," which is associated with obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.

According to the scientists, the fat reduction occurred despite the mice eating the same amount of food. Mice that were purposely bred to have increased levels of the protein grew to be bigger, rounder, and had an average of 22 per cent more white fat when fed a high calorie diet.

The researchers published their discovery in the journal Nature Communications

Lead author Gareth Lim said people generally gain fat in two ways: the multiplication of their fat cells, and the expansion of individual fat cells.

"This protein affects both the number of cells and how big they are, by playing a role in the growth cycle of these cells," he said in a statement.

He told CTV Vancouver that the difference in fat reduction between the groups of mice was so large, it couldn't be ignored.

"It was such a pronounced, marked observation that it begged the question 'Why?' and launched a whole series of studies," he said.

Prof. James Johnson says the discovery could lead to the development of drug therapies designed to block the gene, reducing the accumulation of unhealthy fat.

"It is possible, now that we discovered this area and the proteins that work with it, (and) that's part of the next step – really understand how it's happening," Johnson said.

According to Statistics Canada, more than one in four Canadians are obese, and the obesity rate is increasing in children. Obesity is linked to an increased risk for several chronic diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, and some types of cancer.

With a report from CTV Vancouver's Peter Grainger