28.04.2013 - Swiss scientists have shown for the first time that brown and white fat cells in a living organism can be converted from one cell type to the other.
Using mice as model organisms, the research of the team under Christian Wolfrum from ETH Zurich provides a new approach for anti-obesity therapies. For the first time they demonstrated that energy storing white fat cells can be switched to energy-burning brown fat cells.
For their investigations, Wolfrum et al. made use of the observaton that both humans and mice can adapt to cold temperatures by forming brown fat cells within their white fat depots. These so-called "brite" fat cells (brown-in-white) are less common at warmer than at colder temperatures. To demonstrate whether brite fat cells are formed from white fat cells or other precursors the researchers generated mice with genetically labeled specific fat cells. Exposing them to the cold, the mice formed brite fat cells. After warm adaptation the fat tissue turned white again. The experiments proove that white fat cells can convert into brown fat cells and vice versa. As humans have the same type of cells as mice it is likely that the same process occurs in humans upon cold stimulation.
The researchers now want to find pharmaceutical or nutritional triggers to convert the cells. According to Wolfrum, this would change the current paradigm of obesity treatment. "Current anti-obesity therapies target the energy intake side of the equation by controlling appetite and the uptake of nutrients", says Wolfrum. The pharmacological treatments that are available are not very efficient and usually are associated with side effects. In contrast, this novel approach to treat obesity would target the energy expenditure side of the equation by promoting brown fat formation.
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