Newly isolated 'beige fat' cells could help fight obesity

July 12, 2012, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute
Dana-Farber Cancer Institute researcher Dr. Bruce Spiegelman has isolated a new type of energy-burning fat cell in adult humans which may have therapeutic potential for treating obesity. Credit: Dana-Farber Cancer Institute

Scientists at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute have isolated a new type of energy-burning fat cell in adult humans which they say may have therapeutic potential for treating obesity.

Called "beige fat," the cells are found in scattered pea-sized deposits beneath the skin near the collarbone and along the in adult humans. Because this type of fat can burn off calories – rather than store them, as "white fat" cells do – beige fat cells might spawn new therapies for and diabetes, according to researchers led by Bruce Spiegelman, PhD, of Dana-Farber.

Spiegelman is the senior author of a report scheduled for advance online publication on July 12 by the journal Cell. The print issue of Cell will publish on July 20.

The study found that beige fat is genetically distinct from "," which also burns calories to generate heat. Brown fat is found in small mammals and human infants, where it protects against harm from cold. White fat, on the other hand, stores calories, and excess white fat contributes to obesity.

An interview with author Bruce Spiegelman from Harvard Medical School regarding a paper publishing in Cell, "Beige Adipocytes are a Distinct Type of Thermogenic Fat Cell in Mouse and Human."

Existence of this third type of fat (in addition to white and brown) had been proposed in a paper by Spiegelman's lab in 2008, but the Dana-Farber team is the first to isolate them and to determine their unique genetic profile. In the new report, Spiegelman's team, led by first author, Jun Wu, PhD, also found that beige cells are specifically targeted by the hormone irisin, which muscle cells express during exercise.

In 2009, three research groups reported that the deposits found in adult humans contained brown fat, but the new research has identified them as beige fat by their genetic makeup.

"Going forward, it means that what you want to study for potential therapies are the beige fat cells in these 'hotspots' we're all walking around with," said Spiegelman.

Even in small amounts, brown and beige fat can burn large amounts of calories.

"The therapeutic potential of both kinds of brown fat cells is clear," the authors write in the Cell article, "as genetic manipulations in mice that create more brown or beige fat have strong anti-obesity and anti-diabetic actions." Researchers are already seeking ways to exploit human brown fat for human benefits.

Both types of fat contain energy-burning organelles called mitochondria, which contain iron and are the cause of the brown and beige hues. A key difference is that brown fat cells express high levels of UCP1 – a protein required by mitochondria to burn calories and generate heat – while beige cells normally express low levels of it. Beige cells can, however, turn on high levels of UCP1 in response to cold or certain hormones like irisin, enabling beige fat to burn nearly as effectively as brown fat.

Spiegelman has published a series of discoveries about the different fat cell types. Brown fat cells, he found, are born from stem cells precursors that also produce muscle . Beige fat, however, forms within deposits of white from beige cell precursors.

Earlier this year, he reported the discovery of irisin, produced by muscular exercise, and which can convert to brown fat. In the new Cell report, Spiegelman says that irisin specifically stimulates white to produce beige fate. Dana-Farber has licensed both discoveries to Ember Therapeutics, a biotech company founded by Spiegelman, which plans to develop irisin as a therapy for obesity and diabetes.

In addition to Spiegelman and Wu, authors include researchers from, Maastricht University Medical Center in the Netherlands, Goteborg University in Sweden, and the University of Turku in Finland.

Explore further: Calorie-burning brown fat is a potential obesity treatment, researchers say

More information: Wu et al.: "Beige Adipocytes are a Distinct Type of Thermogenic Fat Cell in Mouse and Human." DOI:10.1016/j.cell.2012.05.016

Related Stories

Calorie-burning brown fat is a potential obesity treatment, researchers say

June 6, 2011
A new study suggests that many adults have large amounts of brown fat, the "good" fat that burns calories to keep us warm, and that it may be possible to make even more of this tissue.

Scientists isolate protein linking exercise to health benefits

January 11, 2012
A team led by researchers at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute has isolated a natural hormone from muscle cells that triggers some of the key health benefits of exercise. They say the protein, which serves as a chemical messenger, ...

Findings in mice have potential to curb obesity, Type 2 diabetes

July 5, 2011
Scientists at the National Institutes of Health have uncovered a pathway in mice that allows white fat – a contributor to obesity and type 2 diabetes – to burn calories in a way that's normally found in brown fat ...

Recommended for you

Scientists produce human intestinal lining that re-creates living tissue inside organ-chip

February 16, 2018
Investigators have demonstrated how cells of a human intestinal lining created outside an individual's body mirror living tissue when placed inside microengineered Intestine-Chips, opening the door to personalized testing ...

Data wave hits health care

February 16, 2018
Technology used by Facebook, Google and Amazon to turn spoken language into text, recognize faces and target advertising could help doctors fight one of the deadliest infections in American hospitals.

Researcher explains how statistics, neuroscience improve anesthesiology

February 16, 2018
It's intuitive that anesthesia operates in the brain, but the standard protocol among anesthesiologists when monitoring and dosing patients during surgery is to rely on indirect signs of arousal like movement, and changes ...

Team reports progress in pursuit of sickle cell cure

February 16, 2018
Scientists have successfully used gene editing to repair 20 to 40 percent of stem and progenitor cells taken from the peripheral blood of patients with sickle cell disease, according to Rice University bioengineer Gang Bao.

Appetite-controlling molecule could prevent 'rebound' weight gain after dieting

February 15, 2018
Scientists have revealed how mice control their appetite when under stress such as cold temperatures and starvation, according to a new study by Monash University and St Vincent's Institute in Melbourne. The results shed ...

First study of radiation exposure in human gut Organ Chip device offers hope for better radioprotective drugs

February 14, 2018
Chernobyl. Three Mile Island. Fukushima. Accidents at nuclear power plants can potentially cause massive destruction and expose workers and civilians to dangerous levels of radiation that lead to cancerous genetic mutations ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.