Activating "Beige" Cells to Lose Weight

"Beiging" darker cells inside fat could spur weight loss and prevent diabetes, UPenn study says

Doctors could one day activate beige cells inside fat to help patients lose weight and prevent diabetes.

A new study from the University of Pennsylvania has found that "beiging," or activating a beige cell that lives among white fat in the body, could prevent diabetes and facilitate weight loss.

White fat stores energy from calories which results in fat stored in the body, while brown fat burns calories to generate body heat, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). About five percent of fat in babies' bodies is brown fat, but brown fat was not discovered in human adults, where it is stored in the shoulders and neck, until 2009. White fat is composed of larger cells than brown fat, and the presence of brown fat has been linked to lower weight.

Some darker cells can also be found within white fat. These cells, called beige adipocytes, can be activated when the body is exposed to the cold or burns fat or carbohydrates, according to the study authors.

"Beiging of white fat could be harnessed to fight diabetes by burning excess calories to cause a decrease in blood sugar," Joseph Baur, an assistant professor of Physiology in the Perelman School of Medicine at UPENN, said in a press release.

In this study, researchers used a rapamycin, a drug used after organ transplants to stop the body's immune system from rejecting new organs. Rapamycin targets a system in the body called mTOR, or mammalian target of rapamycin. It uses signals to promote the growth, survival and regulation of cells in the body. According to the Journal of Cell Science, an irregular mTOR has been linked to diabetes and cancer.

The study authors found that when rats were given rapamycin, which inhibited the mTOR activity in their bodies, their bodies could no longer regulate body temperature when exposed to the cold. This could mean that beige cells are a part of the body's metabolism, since they, like brown cells, appear to be important in producing body heat.

According to the study authors, activating beige cells could be a future treatment for obesity, as the cells could burn fat and carbohydrates to generate body heat. Diabetics have greater difficulty digesting carbohydrates, so they too could benefit from this research.

"The discovery of a critical signaling pathway for beige-fat formation also suggests the opportunity to target this pathway to therapeutically increase the number of heat-producing cells in obese or diabetic patients," co-author Cassie Tran, a postdoctoral fellow in the Baur lab, said in the release.

This study was published Feb. 8 in the journal Diabetes.

Funding sources and disclosures were unavailable at time of publication.