A New Potential Weight-Loss Remedy: Fat-Burning Fat

By Allison Bond | July 30, 2009 3:07 pm

scaleFrom the skin cells of humans and mice, scientists have successfully made brown fat, the kind that burns white fat by producing heat and is possessed in the greatest quantities by babies. The study, published in Nature, could potentially lead to a way to help overweight and obese people slim down.

Brown fat was once thought to be found only in children, but earlier this year researchers confirmed that adults also have a small amount of brown adipose tissue. In 2007, researchers discovered that a protein called PRDM16 made immature muscle cells turn into brown fat. In the new Nature study, the same team of scientists found that PRDM16, in combination with a second protein produced in muscle cells, is the master switch for brown fat cells and will also convert skin cells into brown fat, even though this is not the process nature intended. [Scientists] used this master switch to convert mouse skin cells to brown fat cells, which seem to work as expected when transplanted into normal mice [The New York Times]. The next step is to implant brown fat into obese mice to see if they lose weight; that will provide evidence that the discovery might be used outside of the lab. 

Unlike white fat, which can store energy, brown fat contains energy-producing mitochondria that use glucose to produce heat (the iron-rich mitochondria also give the tissue its brown hue). Brown fat keeps an organism from shivering by producing its own heat–and burning an astonishing number of calories in the process. Not surprisingly, studies have found that leaner adults tend to have more of this fat than heavier ones, and the ability to “make” brown fat could hold promise for weight-loss therapies. One approach would be to take a batch of skin cells from an actual patient, “treat” it with the [two-protein] combination, then inject it back into the patient with the hope that it would promote the creation of brown fat. Another possibility would be to create a drug that would make brown fat. “That’s a more conventional route” [HealthDay News], said lead author Bruce Spiegelman.

Still, any potential obesity remedy that would stem from the discovery is years away. [H]umans evolved to conserve energy, not waste it, and so far our clever bodies have managed to foil nearly all of scientists’ attempts to treat obesity [Wired.com]. Therefore, the metabolism of people who make extra brown fat could slow down, or they might eat more to make up for the extra calories the brown fat burns. Says endocrinologist Francisco Celi: “It’s a very sound and solid study…. In the long run, this could be a strategy. But from this data to the clinic, there is a long, long time” [Wired.com].

Related Content:
80beats: “Baby Fat” In Adults Burns Regular Fat, May Help Prevent Diabetes
80beats: “Good Fat” Could Actually Fight Obesity
80beats: Is Baby Fat a Warning Sign? New Research Links Infants’ Weight Gain to Obesity

Image: flickr / PicsmaKer

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • Sharon

    This is a wonderful discovery. Obesity is running rampant in the US, especially among our children. When one considers all the terrible physical effects those extra pounds put on the system, I hope that more research is done regarding brown fat.

    Something must be done to stop the fattening of the US. Obviously, restraint is hard to come by, especially with the popularity (and admittedly great tasting) typical fat filled diet of the average person.

    A very important and intriguing read!

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    And even the processed health food is pretty much junk.

    My fiancée loves those shows on discovery channel about obese folk. You know what they all claim? “I don’t eat too much.”

  • HmH

    Eat better food, do more Sports. Drugs would be awesome. But to be honest if you eat crap you get unhealthy and to teach people how to eat smart could be enough… I lost about 110 pounds myself and when looking back I think it wasn’t that hard.And I do not eat less, just more healthy and stopped spending days doing nothing.

  • YouRang

    Obesity won’t be cured until Americans stop treating food as a substitute for intimacy (and not necessarily sexual intimacy) and for self-validation.

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    I think the best way to burn fat is doing the right exercises and eating the right foods.

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    Honestly, unless you have some form of thyroid problem, there is no real excuse for being overweight. It is all a matter of calories in versus calories out – eat less than you burn on a daily basis and you will lose weight. It’s called thermodynamics. End of story.

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    Pretty well written, and also your points are very close to my own. Regards.

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    I recently increased my meal frequency to 6 small meals a day. I used tapering where your first meal is the largest, your last meal of the day is your smallest, the last meal contains no carbs only protein and veg. Just following this method I have lost 4 lbs in a week!

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    I need a rough guide on how much to eat, how many times a day to eat, and what to eat. Im trying to lose about 15 pounds.

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    That’s all for lazy people! They want to reinvent the bike and and do not want to move from one place. It would be better if they knew about healthy weight loss systems. Enough to do experiments.

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    There isn’t a “magic bullet” for weight control. Rather, a variety of specific nutritional factors each exercise a small result on body weight, and eventually growing outcomes of modest modifications to day-to-day calorie balance result in gaining weight and obesity.

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