Study IDs a new pathway for drug research into calorie-burning brown fat

Labros Sidossis

Brown fat has been a fascinating, and sometimes costly, target in the biotech world for some years now. And now a group of investigators at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston say they've tracked the transformation of the much more common energy-storing white fat into brown, opening a new pathway that could eventually lead to a new drug for burning off excess calories.

The attraction of brown fat is that it's been shown it can burn energy without exercise, promising to rev up metabolism to spur overweight patients to shed pounds while lowering blood glucose and improving insulin sensitivity. But as Third Rock's troubled upstart Ember Therapeutics proved, coming up with a brown fat-related drug was no simple task.

At UTMB, investigators say they were able to track how a severe trauma could switch white fat into a new form of fat resembling the calorie-burning brown fat. They recruited 72 burn trauma patients who had been scorched on more than 50% of their body surface. Using a comparison group of 19 healthy subjects, they were able to track how the white fat from burn patients gradually turned into brown fat.

The key distinguishing sign of smaller brown fat cells is the high concentration of mitochondria that releases uncoupling protein 1. The trauma spurred the release of adrenaline, which in turn turned on the UCP1 that burned calories. For UTMB professor Labros Sidossis, who has specialized in brown fat research, it's an insight that can blaze a new path toward a more effective obesity therapy.

"Our study provides proof of concept that browning of white fat is possible in humans. The next step is to identify the mechanisms underpinning this effect and then to develop drugs that mimic the burn-induced effect," said Sidossis.

- here's the release

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