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Brown Fat May Lead To Weight Loss Drugs

Brown Fat May Lead To Weight Loss Drugs

Discovering the role of brown fat could be the weight loss breakthrough of the decade…

Scientists may have uncovered a new way to speed up the body’s metabolism – by activating its fat cells. Through extensive research into the roles of brown and white fat, scientists are now starting to understand how fat is a sophisticated organ as important as the liver or kidneys.

White fat is associated with storing energy and weight gain, whereas brown fat is responsible for burning energy by generating heat from calories. Brown fat contains organelles called mitochondria, and enzymes that allow the energy from food calories to be released directly as heat.

Scientist have always known that brown fat exists in infants and animals such as mice, but until recently, they assumed it disappeared before adulthood.

brown fat burns calories Brown Fat May Lead To Weight Loss Drugs

This spring sees the conclusion of several studies in The New England Journal of Medicine, that confirm brown fat is both common in adults, and important to the metabolism. Results show that younger, thinner people have more detectable brown fat than older, chubbier counterparts.

Despite these breakthroughs, scientists are still discovering exactly how fat integrates into the body as an complex biological organ.

Scientists believe that fat secretes hormones and signaling molecules that coordinate behavior and health. It is also known that white fat plays a significant role in the immune system – a study published in August in the journal-Immunity concluded that fat droplets help protect the body against immune-system invaders.

In 2008, a study published in Cell Metabolism found that the subcutaneous fat that accumulates around the thighs and hips, actually lowers risk of diabetes.

Commenting on the new ‘fat revelations’ Aaron Cypess, lead author in a related study and a research associate at the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston, said:

“We were taught that white fat was something that stores energy very efficiently, and that’s it. Fat has undergone a renaissance.”

In light of the new perspective, doctors still agree that most people have too much white fat. A massive 34 percent of Americans over the age of 20 are obese, and much of the fat that accumulates on an obese body is visceral: It surrounds vital organs and increases the risk of diabetes, as well as cancer and stroke.

But the discovery of brown fat in adults, which is concentrated in the neck and chest, may one day provide a treatment for obesity and its related diseases.

So far, Cypess’s research has shown that, besides the young and thin, it’s women who most likely to have significant amounts of active brown fat. He speculates that this maybe due to women having less muscle mass than men, therefore needing more brown fat to stay warm.

In fact, levels of active brown fat are closely related to temperature. A separate research team led by Sven Enerbäck, a medical geneticist at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, found that when subjects spent 2 hours in a cold room wearing thin clothing and intermittently soaking their feet in ice water, their brown fat burned 15 times more energy than it did at room temperature. One subject had enough brown fat to lose 8 to 9 pounds per year.

Dutch researchers found active brown fat in 23 out of 24 subjects when they were cold, but not when they were warm. And research at the University of Nottingham in England revealed brown fat activity was closely associated with seasonal decreases in daylight.

Animal studies also suggest that brown fat promotes weight loss. In 2009, Stockholm University scientists found that mice without active brown fat gained weight 50 percent faster than mice without.

In an 2008 study, mice fed a high-fat diet and kept at room temperature (72 F) ended up almost four times heavier than mice fed the same diet at a colder 39 F.

From these results, researchers estimate that just 2 ounces of active brown fat could burn 300 to 500 calories a day. “You don’t need much to have a profound effect on your body’s metabolism,” Cypess says.

The next stage for scientists is to to figure out how to turn brown fact activity on. As a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard-affiliated Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, Patrick Seale, identified a protein called PRDM-16, that is present in every brown fat cell but absent from white fat cells. When Seale turned of PRDM-16 activity in young brown fat cells, he found that they transformed into muscle cells.

Now an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Seale is working on identifying genes that may turn PRDM-16 on.

Seale’s adviser at Dana-Farber, Bruce Spiegelman, is currently testing a therapy that involves removing white fat precursor cells from animals, inserting active PRDM-16 and then transplanting the cells back into the animals to see if they lose weight.

Mitchell Lazar, director of the Institute for Diabetes, Obesity and Metabolism at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, admits that the idea seems pretty farfetched. “[But] On the other hand, I can’t really think of any reason why it wouldn’t work,” he says.

Cypess and his colleagues are focusing their attention on different proteins, including one called BMP-7 that aids bone growth.

(Bone communicates regularly with fat.) Recently, one researcher found that BMP-7 increases the production of brown fat and protects against obesity in mice. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has already approved a BMP-7 drug for use in spinal surgery, so Cypess is testing the drug’s effects on surgical patients to see if it boosts brown fat too. “If it works, we’ve leapfrogged past several years of research,” he says.

Ultimately, what Seale and Cypess envision is a “brown fat pill”—a drug that boosts the activity of brown fat through molecular means. “I have patients who are 400 pounds,” Cypess says. “I have to find a way to help them out.”

Of course, a brown fat slimming pill wouldn’t provide a quick solution for obesity, for that there is still only surgical methods such as Gastric Bypass/Lapband Surgery. But activating brown fat could help people lose weight by burning an extra 500 calories a day.

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Until a pill becomes available, there are ways for people to rev up their brown fat activity. Enerbäck suggests turning down your home’s central heating and taking walks or breaks outside in the colder months.

jogging in the cold to activate brown fat Brown Fat May Lead To Weight Loss Drugs

As scientists continue to study fat in a new light they are bound to find more opportunities. For example, a study published in July by Paul MacLean and his colleagues at the University of Colorado at Denver revealed new insight into exercise and weight loss: Physical activity reduces weight by increasing the brain’s sensitivity to appetite-suppressing hormones like leptin and insulin more so than by burning calories. According to MacLean, it may make the brain “more receptive to what the leptin and insulin are trying to say.”

With continuing research into white and and brown fat, we could see rise to a new weight loss pill, and even perhaps an exercise pill. An considering that most of the world is becoming more ‘obese’, “we certainly need creative new ways of thinking about combating the obesity epidemic,” Enerbäck says.


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