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The fat in your body comes in different colors. Along with the usual energy-storing white fat cells, there are energy-burning beige fat cells. Researchers have only identified beige fat cells recently.
These energy-spending beige fat cells teem with mitochondria, the powerhouses of energy consumption found in every living cell. Beige fat accumulates around your shoulder blades and above your collarbone, as well as around your kidneys and heart.
Several animal studies have shown a relationship between beige cells and body mass index (BMI). Mice who receive beige fat transplants have shown reduced obesity and lower blood sugar, according to Steven R. Smith, MD, in a commentary for Medscape.
The potential benefit for people with obesity and diabetes has encouraged continued research in the hopes that we may someday harness the power of these fat cells. Toying with the mechanisms for these cells has presented challenging problems, though.
Artificially activating beige fat usually requires adjusting adrenergic signaling, according to a University of Michigan statement. But these are the same pathways connected to some vital body functions, including blood pressure and heartbeat.
People with metabolic disorders like obesity have built a natural resistance to the hormone produced by adrenergic signaling, making therapeutic fat cell tinkering even trickier explains Jun Wu, an assistant professor at the LSI and the study's senior author. Even if it were safe, activating this pathway could be useless, she said.
But in the latest study, researchers believe they have identified a way to activate the fat-burning power of beige cells without disrupting these vital health processes.
New Research Points to Safer Fat-Burning 'Switch'
A team of scientists led by the University of Michigan Life Sciences Institute was motivated by previous research, which found a new type of beige fat that is not involved in the usual adrenergic signaling process. That special subtype has been named glycolytic beige fat (g-beige fat).
This led the LSI team to explore new pathways to turn on beige fat.
The new ground broken in the June 12 study focuses on a protein receptor called CHRNA2. Scientists blocked the pathway for CHRNA2 only in the fat tissues of mice. Next, the mice were fed high-fat diets. With CHRNA2 blocked, and with the beige fat apparently inactive, these mice gained more fat than normal mice.
In other words, the experiment shows CHRNA2 is vital for turning on beige fat cells’ ability to power through calories. This conclusion paves the way for further research and new methods to target the CHRNA2 pathway for future obesity treatments.
Manipulating the CHRNA2 is not risk-free, Wu said. This gene affects memory, sleep, attention, anxiety, and more, according to NIH Library of Medicine’s Genetics Home Reference. But future researchers may someday “turn on” beige cells to control blood glucose and body fat as a weapon in the arsenal against obesity and related diseases.
“This new pathway, with this new subtype of beige fat, could be the beginning of a whole new chapter for approaching this challenge,” Wu said. “We are encouraged by these initial findings.”