Rethinking Healthcare

Newly discovered protein turns fat cells into calorie burners

Posting in Science

The more calorie-burning brown fat your body has, the less likely you are to become obese. Scientists have discovered a new mechanism for flipping the switch to turn regular fat cells into brown ones.

It may sound like an oxymoron, but some of the fat in your body can actually make you less fat. Brown fat helps keep you warm by burning fatty acids. The more brown, calorie-burning fat you have, the lesser your chances of becoming obese.

Scientists had previously discovered that exercise can help convert regular white fat into brown fat. But not everyone can exercise, especially those who are obese. Could there be another way to jump start that conversion?

Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) have discovered how a protein, PRDM16, controls the change from white fat to brown. If scientists could prompt that protein into action, they may be able to promote the presence of brown fat.

Diabetes drugs in the class of PPAR-gamma ligands have been shown to increase production of brown fat, but researchers weren't sure why. The UCSF team found that in mice, PPAR-gamma works by stabilizing PRDM16, so there's more of the protein inside cells. This accumulation of PRDM16 throws the switch that turns white fat into brown fat.

In order for this to become a reliable therapy for humans, scientists need to be sure that PPAR-gamma has the same effect on the PRDM16 protein in people as it does in mice. If the researchers are able to engineer PPAR-gamma to effectively stabilize PRDM16 in humans, they could have a highly effective pharmacological tool to maintain brown fat levels and treat obesity.

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Audrey Quinn

Contributing Writer

Audrey Quinn is a Brooklyn-based multimedia journalist focused on health, tech and the economy. Her radio stories can be heard on Marketplace, Studio 360, PRI's The World, NPR's Latino USA, Deutsche Welle Radio and The Believer Magazine podcast. In addition to her work with CBS Interactive she produces multimedia science stories for online publications and is a teaching assistant at the Transom Story Workshop. Her investigative work has been awarded by the Fund for Investigative Journalism and The Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure