Brain and Body

Baby Steps in the Quest to Melt Fat

January 3, 2017 | Maggie Romuld

Photo credit: tiburi/Pixabay

New study tips the scale in the fight between brown fat and white fat.

There is hope. On the very day when many have given up their good intentions and succumbed to post-holiday cravings, news has come from the University of Bonn that some progress has been made in the quest to melt fat.

It’s a bit of a good news/bad news story. A team of scientists at the Institute of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the University of Bonn report that while excess fat can be melted away by converting white fat cells to energy-consuming brown fat cells—in mice, at least—inflammatory responses that often occur in overweight people can block that kind of cell conversion.

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The scientists believe, however, that it may be possible to bypass that block, and the results of their current research have been published in the scientific journal Cell Reports.

In very general terms, brown fat cells are more desirable than white fat cells. White fat stores energy as large fat droplets, while brown fat cells are packed with mitochondria, and are specialized to burn their much smaller droplets of fat to produce energy.

Research team lead Alexander Pfeifer said in a press release that "In studies in mice, we have found various starting points to convert troublesome white fat cells into desirable brown fat cells."

The scientists found that cyclic guanosine monophosphate (cGMP) plays an important role in signaling that conversion. After fattening up mice and examining their tissues, they also found that there was a relationship between the amount of cellular inflammation and activity of the cGMP.

In the press release, they state that “While hardly any inflammation occurred in the subcutaneous fat of obese mice and cGMP signaling was largely intact, things were very different for the deeper-lying abdominal fat: through the significant weight increase, inflammation had spread, and the fat-burning turbocharger cGMP largely came to a standstill.”

Abdominal, or visceral, fat has been implicated in a variety of health problems—much more than subcutaneous fat. According to Harvard Medical School, abdominal fat “pumps out immune system chemicals called cytokines—for example, tumor necrosis factor and interleukin-6—that can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. These and other biochemicals are thought to have deleterious effects on cells' sensitivity to insulin, blood pressure, and blood clotting.”

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Lead author of the current study, Abhishek Sanyal, investigated the way inflammation inhibited the cGMP signal path, and identified Tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNFalpha) as the inflammation factor that suppressed the signal path and prevented the cell conversion from white fat to brown fat.

Though human trials are a long way off, the recent findings do provide some direction for future research.  In summarizing their newest study, Professor Pfeifer suggested that “one possible starting point in combating obesity could be to inhibit the inflammatory response in abdominal fat while administering cGMP-stimulating active ingredients.”

Until then, I’m afraid we’ll all just have to stick to our New Year’s resolutions. Good luck.

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