The investigators looked at more than 57,000 people of European descent and searched for genes associated with abdominal fat, independent of overall obesity. They examined more than 50,000 variants in 2,000 genes.
The team pinpointed three new genes associated with increased waist-to-hip ratio in both women and men, and identified two other genes that appear to affect waist-to-hip ratio in women only. Waist-to-hip ratio is used to measure a person's belly fat. It's believed that genetics account for 30 percent to 60 percent of waist-to-hip ratio.
Abdominal fat is a predictor of obesity-related disease, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The new study found that of the two genes that only seem to affect women, one called SHC1 appears to interact with 17 other proteins known to play a role in obesity. SHC1 has been found to be highly active in fat tissue.
"This is the first time SHC1 has been associated with abdominal fat," study author Kira Taylor, an assistant professor at the University of Louisville School of Public Health and Information Sciences, said in a university news release.
"We believe this discovery holds great opportunity for medicinal chemistry and eventually, personalized medicine," Taylor said. "If scientists can find a way to fine-tune the [activity] of this gene, we could potentially reduce the risk of excessive fat in the mid-section and its consequences, such as cardiovascular disease."
The study was recently published online in the journal Human Molecular Genetics.
Previous research has found that mice without the SHC1 protein are leaner than those with the protein, the news release noted.
The U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute has more about overweight and obesity.