Study unlocks origin of brown fat cells important in weight maintenance

September 26, 2013

In ongoing research aimed at battling obesity, UT Southwestern Medical Center researchers have deciphered how new fat cells are formed in energy-storing fat pads.

In particular, researchers sought to find out the origin of "brown" fat cells and whether humans can make more of them in order to burn extra calories – a finding that could have significant impact in battling obesity and related diseases.

"Much of the current excitement in the obesity field stems from recent observations highlighting that, even as adults, we have the ability to generate cells in response to . Unlike cells that mostly just store fat, brown adipocytes keep us warm by burning fat at a high rate," said Dr. Philipp Scherer, Director of the Touchstone Center for Diabetes Research at UT Southwestern and senior author of the study available online at Nature Medicine.

While generation of brown fat cells previously was thought to be mostly relevant for rodents and human infants, Dr. Scherer said, current evidence points to the observation that adults also generate these cells when exposed to cold.

Brown fat cells in adults tend to be randomly interspersed in subcutaneous white fat, with a trend toward increased accumulation in the upper chest and neck areas. In general, brown fat tissue makes up just a small percentage of total body fat mass.

The Touchstone Center's staff devotes its efforts to the study of cells and tissues that either contribute to, or are affected by, diabetes and its related diseases, including the physiology of fat tissue. In this study, the UT Southwestern research team examined the timing and nature of changes in fat cell composition in response to weight gain, cold exposure, and development. Genetic tools developed at the medical center over the past eight years were used to label all pre-existing fat cells. Researchers then were able to track where new fat cells emerged.

When mice were exposed to high-fat diets, significant differences between the types of white fat deposits were observed – subcutaneous fat deposits took their existing fat cells and made them bigger, while other deposits were more prone to generating new fat cells. Brown fat cells did not form during this experiment, nor during a test that monitored early growth-related development. Only when exposed to cold did new brown fat cells appear.

"The major finding is that the cold-induced adaptation and appearance of brown fat cells involves the generation of completely new cells rather than a retooling of pre-existing white fat cells into brown fat cells in response to the cold," Dr. Scherer said.

The researchers next hope to translate these findings into clinical use, with future efforts directed toward therapeutic strategies to activate precursor cells to become new brown fat cells rather than to convert white fat cells into brown .

Explore further: Newly discovered human fat cell opens up new opportunities for future treatment of obesity

Related Stories

Newly discovered human fat cell opens up new opportunities for future treatment of obesity

May 2, 2013
The body's brown fat cells play a key role in the development of obesity and diabetes. Researchers at Sahlgrenska Academy, University of Gothenburg, Sweden, have now discovered that we humans have two different kinds of brown ...

Some fat cells can feel the cold

July 2, 2013
(Medical Xpress)—To survive in cold environments, mammals burn fat to produce heat. The breakdown of fat helps prevent obesity and related metabolic diseases, such as diabetes. Bruce Spiegelman and his colleagues at Harvard ...

Fat-cell 'switch' may determine whether body stores energy or burns it

August 1, 2013
(HealthDay)—Researchers say they've found a "toggle switch" that controls whether fat cells in the body burn up or store their energy.

Scientists develop a new way to identify good fat

September 18, 2013
When it comes to fat, you want the brown type and not so much of the white variety because brown fat burns energy to keep you warm and metabolically active, while white fat stores excess energy around your waist, causing ...

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.

Recommended for you

Engineered protein treatment found to reduce obesity in mice, rats and primates

October 19, 2017
(Medical Xpress)—A team of researchers with pharmaceutical company Amgen Inc. report that an engineered version of a protein naturally found in the body caused test mice, rats and cynomolgus monkeys to lose weight. In their ...

New procedure enables cultivation of human brain sections in the petri dish

October 19, 2017
Researchers at the University of Tübingen have become the first to keep human brain tissue alive outside the body for several weeks. The researchers, headed by Dr. Niklas Schwarz, Dr. Henner Koch and Dr. Thomas Wuttke at ...

Cancer drug found to offer promising results in treating sepsis in test mice

October 19, 2017
(Medical Xpress)—A combined team of researchers from China and the U.S. has found that a drug commonly used to treat lung cancer in humans offers a degree of protection against sepsis in test mice. In their paper published ...

Tracing cell death pathway points to drug targets for brain damage, kidney injury, asthma

October 19, 2017
University of Pittsburgh scientists are unlocking the complexities of a recently discovered cell death process that plays a key role in health and disease, and new findings link their discovery to asthma, kidney injury and ...

Study reveals key molecular link in major cell growth pathway

October 19, 2017
A team of scientists led by Whitehead Institute has uncovered a surprising molecular link that connects how cells regulate growth with how they sense and make available the nutrients required for growth. Their work, which ...

Inflammation trains the skin to heal faster

October 18, 2017
Scars may fade, but the skin remembers. New research from The Rockefeller University reveals that wounds or other harmful, inflammation-provoking experiences impart long-lasting memories to stem cells residing in the skin, ...

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.