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3 December, 2018 - 00:06 By Kate Sweeney

New drug to fight obesity may be on the horizon

Research from Cambridge University scientists could provide a potential new drug to fight obesity. The team hopes the key finding from its research in mice will translate to humans.

Our bodies contain two types of fat – white and brown. While white fat stores calories, brown fat burns energy and could help us lose weight. The Cambridge team have found a way of making the white fat ‘browner’ and increasing the efficiency of brown fat.

Obesity is a condition in which individuals accumulate more and more fat until their fat stops functioning. This can lead to diseases such as diabetes. However, not all fat tissue is bad: the fat that accumulates in obesity is known as ‘white fat’, but a second form of fat known as ‘brown fat’ could be used to treat obesity.

Both brown and white fat are made up of fat cells known as adipocytes, but in brown fat, these cells are rich in mitochondria – the ‘batteries’ that power our bodies – which give the tissue its brown colour. 

Brown fat also contains more blood vessels to allow the body to provide it with oxygen and nutrients.

While white fat stores energy, brown fat burns it in a process known as ‘thermogenesis’. When fully activated, just 100g of brown fat can burn 3,400 calories a day – significantly higher than most people’s daily food intake and more than enough to fight obesity.

In 2012, a team led by Professor Toni Vidal-Puig from the Wellcome Trust-MRC Institute of Metabolic Science, University of Cambridge, identified a molecule known as BMP8b that regulates the activation of brown fat in both the brain and the body’s tissues. They showed that deleting the gene in mice that produces this protein stopped brown fat from functioning.

Now, in a study published in the journal Nature Communications, Professor Vidal-Puig has led an international team of researchers which has shown that increasing how much BMP8b mice can produce increases the function of their brown fat. 

This implies that BMP8b, which is found in the blood, could potentially be used as a drug to increase the amount of brown fat amount in humans as well as making it more active. Further research will be necessary to demonstrate if this is the case.

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