Medical

"Fat-burning pill" inches closer to reality

"Fat-burning pill" inches clos...
Researchers have developed a system to uncover compounds capable of turning "bad" white fat cells into "good" brown fat cells (Photo: Shutterstock)
Researchers have developed a system to uncover compounds capable of turning "bad" white fat cells into "good" brown fat cells (Photo: Shutterstock)
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The compounds identified by the researchers can cause human fat stem cells to produce brown-like cells instead of harmful white ones (Image: Tim Ahfeldt/Harvard University)
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The compounds identified by the researchers can cause human fat stem cells to produce brown-like cells instead of harmful white ones (Image: Tim Ahfeldt/Harvard University)
Researchers have developed a system to uncover compounds capable of turning "bad" white fat cells into "good" brown fat cells (Photo: Shutterstock)
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Researchers have developed a system to uncover compounds capable of turning "bad" white fat cells into "good" brown fat cells (Photo: Shutterstock)

Researchers at Harvard University say they have identified two chemical compounds that could replace "bad" fat cells in the human body with healthy fat-burning cells, in what may be the first step toward the development of an effective medical treatment – which could even take the form of a pill – to help control weight gain.

Not all fat is created equal. While white fat cells store energy as lipids and contribute to obesity, heart disease and type 2 diabetes, the less common brown fat cells pack energy in iron-rich mitochondria, have been shown to lower triglyceride levels and insulin resistance in mice, and appear to be correlated with lower body weight in humans. Brown fat makes up about five percent of the body mass of healthy newborns, helping them keep warm, and is still present in lower quantities in our neck and shoulders as adults, where it helps burn the white fat cells.

Associate professor Chad Cowan and colleagues at Harvard say they have developed a way to identify the chemical compounds that induce fat stem cells to produce "good" brown-like fat cells instead of the "bad" white ones. The scientists say they have already used their system to pinpoint two such compounds that can accomplish this in humans.

Other drugs (viagra included) have been known to be able to turn white fat cells into brown, but their effect is only temporary. This new method, however, is reportedly showing a stable conversion of fat cells over time, which has an exciting potential for long-term health improvement.

The compounds identified by the researchers can cause human fat stem cells to produce brown-like cells instead of harmful white ones (Image: Tim Ahfeldt/Harvard University)
The compounds identified by the researchers can cause human fat stem cells to produce brown-like cells instead of harmful white ones (Image: Tim Ahfeldt/Harvard University)

But turning these two chemicals into a practical treatment is not going to be a straightforward process. Aside from the lengthy medical trials still to come, the two compounds identified so far both target the same molecule  –  a molecule that contributes to the inflammatory response. The concern here is that tinkering with it by using the compounds over the long term and without modifications could end up compromising the immune system.

Cowan’s team achieved this result by screening a catalog of only about one thousand compounds. But now, as the first two are being tested on mice to investigate the long-term effects on metabolism and immune system, the researchers are approaching pharmaceutical companies to gain access to a much larger database of over a million compounds, with the hope of finding a candidate that doesn't have the potential adverse effects of the first two.

A paper describing the advance was published on the journal Nature Cell Biology.

Sources: Harvard University, National Institutes of Health

10 comments
oldguy
Y'Know, I just lost about twenty pounds on a diet arranged by my doctor. Not easy and I still have some ten pounds to go, but at least Im learning to live healthier and my systems are adjusting slowly. Maybe willpower is something we could all do with a dose of?
Jay Finke
@ oldguy Willpower or Penicillin, I'll take the Penicillin.
Koolski
@ oldguy I've always kept a fairly healthy weight and agree the single biggest issue is will power/self control. As I've moved towards being an "oldguy" too, I have developed more sympathy for people and their specific life situations. For instance, I'm currently on some medicine where one side effect is weight gain & I've gained 25 lbs in a short amount of time. I will have to work hard just to keep from gaining more weight much less losing back to my former weight.
El Bonko
@ Oldguy Agreed, we could all use a dose of willpower, and I really hope someone's working on that pill.
Derek Howe
cool, This should be available to buy in a few years....But for the US market it wont hit shelves until 2040, thanks to our astonishingly slow FDA.
David S. G.
This totally misses that some of our problems come from the huge number of foods that have been intentionally made to be as addictive as possible. It is like adding crack cocaine to foods and then blaming the people for being weak and eating so much that they have health issues. Then, instead of telling the food industry to stop it, they try to come up with a pill to counteract the side-effects, so they can keep us addicted and sell more food and these medicines so we don't die quite as fast. I do not believe that the researchers are evil, but the other group has put profit before our well being. Yes, we all need to make profits to survive, but it can and must be done with care for your buyers. The cost of treating the sick, that they have created, will bankrupt us all. Look up the number of people financially crushed by the cost of healthcare. What is so addictive? Sugar. It is put in everything that doesn't even need it. They hide it under various names because we know it isn't good for us.
Bob
While at the gym I saw a man working out at a feverishly intense level. When I complimented him on his effort, he said not to. He worked out like that just to offset all his bad habits and bad foods that he loved to eat. So, maybe not everyone who looks healthy really is.
Robert Necker
Here's an interesting concept, try dieting & get off your fat asses and start exercising more! I CONSTANTLY see MANY fat people stuffing their faces with Big Mac's Xtra large portions of lard, donuts, milkshakes, and 3 or more trips to the ALL you can eat buffet table! DUH!!!
The main problem, ESPECIALLY with Americans is that they are fat and lazy, CONSTANTLY making excuses for their weight problems!! Eating yourself to death is NEVER the answer to your neverending problems! I know this because I personally use to weigh in at 250 lbs and climbing and was a 40" waist! Now after A LOT of hard work of dieting & exercise, I am back down to a 34" waist! Dieting will ALWAYS be hard, stuffing your face will ALWAYS be easy! Let me preference all of this by saying that if you have a glandular or medical problem, than that's different story!
AGO
You don't decide to be more active any more than you decide to get sleepy or wake up in the morning. Energy levels are determined by hormonal processes in the body. If you eat the right food, you will lose weight and be more active and if you eat the wrong foods, you will gain weight and as a result become sedentary.... Carbs drive insulin which drives fat accumulation....ketogenic adaptation solves this problem......
Douglas Bennett Rogers
High volume aerobics lead to reduced thyroid function and increased cortisol, resulting in belly fat. Some carbohydrates are needed for maintaining thyroid function. Afterburn should be the objective.