Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have found a new way to trigger the growth of beneficial brown fat.
The new method involves using a specially designed hydrogel to control an implant that contains stem cells. The result is the formation of brown fat-like tissue.
Brown fat has become a topic of great interest for researchers in recent years. Its primary role is to generate body heat, but studies have shown that brown fat activation significantly increases the rate at which calories are burned, making it potentially key to future treatments for type 2 diabetes and obesity.
Brown fat is contrasted with white fat, which is the more common, “bad” type of fat.
The difficult for thing for researchers is working out how to effectively activate brown fat cells in order to treat obesity and reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes. This study provides a new theoretical technique.
“What is truly exciting about this system is its potential to provide plentiful supplies of brown fat for therapeutic purposes,” said lead author Kevin Tharp, a PhD student in the Department of Nutritional Sciences and Toxicology.
“The implant is made from the stem cells that reside in white fat, which could be made from tissue obtained through liposuction.”
The researchers extracted white fat stem cells from mice that were genetically engineered to express an enzyme that had been taken from fireflies in order to make them glow, and therefore be easier to keep track of.
These cells were then added to a hydrogel that contained protein sequences linked to brown fat development. The researchers injected the mixture into another, genetically identical group of mice.
Andreas Stahl, Associate Professor of Nutritional Sciences and Toxicology, said: “We are the first to implant in mice an artificial brown fat depot and show that it has the expected effects on body temperature and beneficial effects on metabolism.”
The researchers observed that the group of mice given the brown fat injection tended to have higher core temperatures, suggesting a higher concentration of brown fat cells.
To test the mixture’s weight loss properties, the mice were fed a high-fat diet. After three weeks, the mice that had received the brown fat injection gained half the weight and had lower blood glucose levels than the non-injected control group.
“This is a feasibility study, but the results were very encouraging,” said Stahl. “It is the first time an optimised 3D environment has been created to stimulate growth of brown-like fat. Given the negative health effects of obesity, research into the role of brown fat should continue to see if these findings would be effective in humans.”
The findings were published in the journal Diabetes.

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