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Brown fat cells may treat obesity

Jenny Decker RN's picture

When a child is born, he/she has brown fat cells to keep him warm. An infant is unable to warm himself by shivering. It was thought that adults did not have brown fat cells, that they had disappeared quickly as the infant grew older. However, researchers have recently found some brown fat in adults. Because brown fat turns excess glucose (sugar) into heat, researchers wondered if maybe the brown fat cells could be made more active as a possible obesity treatment.

In the July 29th issue of the journal Nature, researchers reported their findings in a study that began years ago, as a possible treatment for obesity. Dr. Bruce M. Spiegelman, Harvard Medical School, has been studying the body’s white fat cells and how they are controlled. In 1994, he found the body’s regulators of white fat cells. Turning to brown fat cells, he assumed that they came from white fat cells. What he found was truly amazing.

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In an experiment, he inactivated a protein in the brown fat cells, called a zinc finger. He was attempting to see if the brown fat cells then turned into white fat. Instead, they became muscle cells. The zinc finger and a second protein from the muscle cell in combination form the master switch for the brown fat cell. It also converts skin cells into brown fat. This was the beginning of the possible obesity treatment for humans.

In his continuing study, Dr. Spiegelman converted mouse skin cells to brown fat cells and then transplanted them into normal mice. As a second experiment, he plans to transplant the brown fat cells into obese mice to test the thinking that brown fat cells may treat obesity.

It is hoped that because brown fat cells cause the body’s white fat cells to break down into fatty acids and produce heat that possibly treatment for obesity and maybe diabetes type 2 may be on the horizon. It may be possible to treat obesity by taking some of one’s skin cells and convert them into brown fat cells, thus producing a chemical reaction with the white fat cells to break down into fatty acids and heat, yielding a possible loss of 10 pounds a year. It is also possible that a drug may be able to be developed as a possible treatment.

Nature Abstract