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There are two types of fat tissue in the body: the good brown kind – which helps us to burn calories, and the bad white kind – which leads us to gain weight. Now, there might be a way to covert the bad into the good, new research at Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis has found.
Though the study was conducted on mice, it has shown promising results, which could be the key to abolishing the bad fat in human bodies and subsequently treating obesity.
Published in Cell Reports, the study explains that when fat stores calories in our bellies, it generates heat. By blocking the processes of a specific protein found in white fat cells, scientists found that the cell produced a middle ground beige fat, an intermediary that is neither good nor bad. This blocking technique caused the beige fat cells to heat up and subsequently burn calories.
"Our goal is to find a way to treat or prevent obesity," said first author Irfan J. Lodhi, PhD. "Our research suggests that by targeting a protein in white fat, we can convert bad fat into a type of fat that fights obesity."
Beige fat was first discovered in humans in 2015 and functions in a similarly beneficial manner to brown fat. Researchers produced a genetic strain of mice that didn't make a key protein in their white fat cells, thus, they had more beige fat and boasted a lean physique in comparison to the other mice. Though they ate exactly the same, these mice burnt more calories.
"Mice normally have very low levels of the protein, called PexRAP, in their brown fat," Lodhi said. "When we put the mice into a cold environment, levels of the protein also decreased in white fat, allowing that fat to behave more like brown fat. Cold induces brown and beige fats to burn stored energy and produce heat. The challenge will be finding safe ways to do that without causing a person to overheat or develop a fever, but drug developers now have a good target."
It's not the first time scientists have hailed beige fat as a possible pathway to combating obesity. A 2015 study at Georgia State University also suggested that the body's ability to convert white fat cells into beige ones through heat production could treat obesity and diabetes. However, the researchers noted that the process doesn't naturally occur in humans on a large-enough scale to make any real impact.
They also concluded that because humans typically exist at a neutral heat level, naturally occurring beige fat cells are limited, as is any significant role they may play in everyday heat production. One in four Britons is obese, with the NHS predicting that more than half of the population could be obese by 2050.