Fighting Fat with Fat -- MEDICA - World Forum for Medicine

Fighting Fat with Fat

Photo: Brown adipose tissue

However, apart from white fat cells,
there is a second type of body fat,
the brown fat tissue;© DKFZ

Gross overweight or obesity is spreading like a pandemic. In 2006, WHO estimated that half of all adults and one fifth of all children in Europe are overweight. Of these, about one third is considered obese.

In 2009, these figures were confirmed for Germany in a micro census by the Federal Statistical Office: Fifteen per cent of Germans were classified as obese. Today, over ten times more children in Europe are obese than in 1970. Obesity is responsible for numerous diseases including such severe ones as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer.

Obesity results when the body stores excess energy in the form of fat molecules in white fat tissue. Large deposits of white fat can be found, for example, at the stomach, hips and buttocks. However, apart from white fat cells, there is a second type of body fat, the brown fat tissue. Unlike energy-storing white fat tissue, brown fat tissue burns energy by converting it to heat.

Until recently, scientists believed that in humans, only babies have active brown fat. In 2007, several research groups discovered this tissue type also in adult humans. Last year, a research team led by Stephan Herzig of DKFZ showed that prostaglandin, an inflammatory hormone in our body, stimulates the formation of brown fat-like cells within white fat.

These findings could lead to a completely new way of fighting obesity. Activating or regenerating only small amounts of brown fat tissue would significantly increase the breaking down of white fat, consumption of glucose (blood sugar) and, thus, an individual’s output of energy. This is also confirmed by the observation that lean people have – relatively speaking – more brown fat tissue than overweight people. Researchers are therefore looking for ways of stimulating brown fat to proliferate or to produce more heat by dietary measures or drugs. Some scientists have even considered transplanting brown fat cells. “Estimates suggest that an additional 50 grams of brown fat tissue would be enough to increase an adult person’s energy output by 20 per cent,” said Herzig. “What we are trying to achieve here is not to help people attain what they believe to be a perfect body shape. Instead, our aim is to treat severely obese people by repairing a defective glucose tolerance, for example, improving the effect of insulin, and thus to combat type 2 diabetes.”

To this end, Herzig’s group has teamed up with 19 partner institutes from 12 European countries. The European Union will provide funds of six million euros for this research project over the next four years. The consortium has named itself “DIABAT”, a made-up word combining “diabetes” and “BAT”, the acronym for “brown adipose tissue”, or brown fat tissue. Herzig is pleased: “This is the first time that research into the promising properties of brown fat tissue is being supported on a large scale in Europe.”; Quelle: German Cancer Research Centre