Scientists Find A New Way To Help You Lose Weight, But You Won’t Want To Try It

Does the notion of a new method to lose weight – one that doesn’t require increased exercise or a change in diet – sound appealing? Well scientists have recently reported just that. Common white fat can be converted in humans to energy-burning brown fat. The only catch? Your body needs to be under prolonged stress such as after a severe burn.

Obese mouse: researchers tackle the obesity epidemic using rodent models like this obese mouse.Obese mouse: researchers tackle the obesity epidemic using rodent models like this obese mouse.

We are in the midst of an obesity epidemic. Over one third of Americans are obese and the annual medical costs of obesity-related conditions was $147 million in 2008. Clearly something needs to be done, but thus far the tried-and-true strategy of ‘eat less, exercise more’ is insufficient for many. Obesity researchers were given a boost in recent years by the discovery in humans of brown fat cells. Brown fat cells, also known as brown adipose tissue or BAT, are typically involved in the generation of body heat. Despite both being types of fat, BAT is quite distinct from white fat. Indeed, it is derived from the same embryonic stem cells as muscle. Brown fat cells are smaller, have greater numbers of mitochondria, and express a protein called uncoupling protein 1 (UCP1) which stimulated by adrenaline. The adrenaline causes the mitochrondria to activate and begin burning calories in order to produce heat. Obese people have been shown to have limited numbers of brown fat cells leading researchers to conclude that a means of converting white fat cells to brown could have considerable therapeutic value.

Brown fat: this PET scan was taken of a cold patient to highlight brown fat stores. Image from Hg6996.Brown fat: this PET scan was taken of a cold patient to highlight brown fat stores. Image from Hg6996.

Recently, scientists have shown that such a conversion is possible in rodents using prolonged exposure to cold. The same strategy has also been proven effective in human cells in a test tube. Unfortunately, no one has been able replicate this result in living, breathing humans. It was determined that a more intense period of adrenergic stress, both longer lasting and more adrenaline-releasing, would required.

Patients who have recently suffered traumatic burns turned out to be the optimal candidates for investigation due to the massive releases of adrenaline that continue for several weeks as the body grapples with the trauma. Conducted at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston by professor of internal medicine Labros Sidossis, the study looked at 72 patients who had recently suffered severe burns over greater than 50% of their bodies and compared them with a control group of 19 healthy individuals. A progressive conversion from white to brown fat was observed in the burn victims over the course of the study.

So is long-term traumatic injury the best way to lose weight? Maybe, but I wouldn’t jump on that bandwagon just yet. Says lead researcher Labros Sidossis, "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”. With any luck, a simple pill that tells your body to release mass amounts of fat-browning adrenaline is just around the corner.

Via Science Daily and Cell Metabolism.