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Molecular switch found in mice could lead to future obesity treatments, scientists say

A surprise discovery — that calorie-burning brown fat can be produced experimentally from muscle precursor cells in mice — raises the prospect of new ways to fight obesity and overweight, say scientists from Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Reporting in the Aug. 21 issue of the journal Nature, the researchers demonstrated that brown fat, which is known as the “good” form of fat — so called because it burns calories and releases energy, unlike “bad” white fat that simply stores extra calories — can be generated from unspecialized precursors that routinely spawn skeletal muscle.

The team led by Dana-Farber’s Bruce Spiegelman, PhD, showed that a previously known molecular switch, PRDM16, regulates the creation of brown fat from immature muscle cells. They also determined that the process is a two-way street: Knocking out PRDM16 in brown fat cells can convert them into muscle cells. However, Spiegelman called the latter an “experimental lab trick” for which he currently envisions no practical applications.

The “huge surprise” of the study results, he said, was that muscle precursor cells known as “satellite cells” are able to give birth to brown fat cells under the control of PRDM16.

Spiegelman said the finding confirms that PRDM16 is the “master regulator” of brown fat development. The confirmation will spur ongoing research in his laboratory, he said, to see if drugs that rev up PRDM16 in mice — and potentially, in people — could convert white fat into brown fat and thereby treat obesity. Another strategy, he said, might be to transplant brown fat cells into an overweight person to turn on the calorie-burning process.

“I think we now have very convincing evidence that PRDM16 can turn cells into brown fat cells, with the possibility of combating obesity,” said Spiegelman, the senior author of the paper. The lead author is Patrick Seale, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in the Spiegelman lab.

Another paper in the same issue of Nature described a different trigger of brown fat production, a molecule called BMP7. A commentary in the journal by Barbara Cannon, an internationally recognized researcher in the biology of fat cells at the University of Stockholm, said that the two reports “take us a step closer to the ultimate goal of promoting the brown fat lineage as a potential way of counteracting obesity.”

The Spiegelman group has long studied fat cells both as a model for normal and abnormal cell development, which relates to cancer, and also because fat cells play such a key role in the growing epidemics of obesity and diabetes.

There is much interest in brown fat’s role in regulating metabolism. Rodents and human infants have abundant brown fat that dissipates food energy as heat to protect against the cold. Though human adults have little brown fat, it apparently does have a metabolic function, including the potential to be amplified in some way to combat obesity.

In 2007, Spiegelman and colleagues reported they had inserted PRDM16 genes into white fat precursors, which they implanted under the skin of mice. The PRDM16 switch coaxed the white fat precursors to produce brown fat cells instead of white. To Spiegelman, this suggested the possibility of transplanting PRDM16-equipped white fat precursors into people who are at high risk of becoming obese, to shift their metabolism slightly into a calorie-burning mode.

The new research adds another potential source of brown fat — the muscle cell progenitors, or myoblasts, that exist in the body to replace mature muscle cells as needed. The progenitors, which can be thought of as “adult stem cells,” are committed to becoming specialized muscle cells when activated by appropriate signals, or, as the study revealed, brown fat cells when PDRM16 is turned on. The PRDM16 trigger “is very powerful at what it does,” said Spiegelman, who is also a professor of cell biology at Harvard Medical School.

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Article adapted by MD Sports from original press release.
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Contact: Bill Schaller
Dana-Farber Cancer Institute 

Other authors of the paper include Bryan Bjork, PhD, and David R. Beier, PhD, MD, of Brigham and Women’s Hospital; Michael Rudnicki, PhD, of the Ottawa Health Research Institute; and Hediye Erdjument-Bromage, PhD, and Paul Tempst, PhD, of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

Dana-Farber Cancer Institute (www.dana-farber.org) is a principal teaching affiliate of the Harvard Medical School and is among the leading cancer research and care centers in the United States. It is a founding member of the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center (DF/HCC), designated a comprehensive cancer center by the National Cancer Institute.

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Researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University have discovered a process that controls the amount of fat that cells store for use as a back-up energy source. Disruption of this process allows cellular fat to accumulate — a key factor in age-related metabolic diseases such as obesity and type 2 diabetes. The study is published today in the online version of Nature.

Discovery of this previously unknown fat-fighting pathway could lead to novel drugs for the treatment of metabolic syndrome (characterized by obesity, blood lipid disorders, and insulin resistance) and for a common liver disease known as “fatty liver” or steatohepatitis. Nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) is a common, often “silent” liver disease. Although NASH resembles alcoholic liver disease, it occurs in people who drink little or no alcohol. NASH affects 2 to 5 percent of Americans, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

All cells store lipids, a type of fat, in the form of small droplets that can be broken down for energy when needed. In situations of excessive food intake or in certain diseases such as diabetes or obesity, these lipid droplets become so large that they interfere with normal cell function.

“In this study, we found that the amount of fat stored in these intracellular lipid droplets is controlled through autophagy, a process until now thought to help primarily in digesting and recycling damaged cellular structures,” says Mark Czaja, M.D., professor of medicine at Einstein whose team worked collaboratively on the research with the laboratory of Ana Maria Cuervo, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of developmental & molecular biology, medicine, and anatomy & structural biology at Einstein.

Autophagy, or “self-eating,” is carried out by lysosomes, which function as the cell’s recycling center. In studies of liver cells in culture and in live animals, Dr. Czaja and his colleagues discovered that lysosomes do something never before observed: continuously remove portions of lipid droplets and process them for energy production.

“When food is scarce, autophagy becomes a main source of energy for the cells and this process of digesting lipid droplets is accelerated,” says Dr. Cuervo. “If autophagy slows down, as occurs in aging, the lipid droplets stored in cells keep growing and eventually become so big that they can no longer be degraded.”

This slowdown in fat control appears to trigger a vicious cycle in which the enlarging fat droplets impair autophagy, allowing even more fat to accumulate, and so on, which could eventually contribute to diseases such as diabetes. The researchers noted that therapies aimed at helping autophagy operate more efficiently might prevent disease by keeping fat droplets under control.

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Article adapted by MD Sports from original press release.
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Contact: Deirdre Branley
Albert Einstein College of Medicine

Drs. Cuervo and Czaja’s paper, “Autophagy regulates lipid metabolism” is published in the April 1 online version of Nature. Their co-authors at Einstein include Rajat Singh and Susmita Kaushik (primary co-authors), Yongjun Wang, Youqing Xiang, and Inna Novak; as well as Masaaki Komatsu and Keiji Tanaka of the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Medical Science, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo, Japan.

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About Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University

Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University is one of the nation’s premier centers for research, medical education and clinical investigation. It is the home to some 2,000 faculty members, 750 M.D. students, 350 Ph.D. students (including 125 in combined M.D./Ph.D. programs) and 380 postdoctoral investigators. Last year, Einstein received more than $130 million in support from the NIH. This includes the funding of major research centers at Einstein in diabetes, cancer, liver disease, and AIDS. Other areas where the College of Medicine is concentrating its efforts include developmental brain research, neuroscience, cardiac disease, and initiatives to reduce and eliminate ethnic and racial health disparities. Through its extensive affiliation network involving five hospital centers in the Bronx, Manhattan and Long Island – which includes Montefiore Medical Center, The University Hospital and Academic Medical Center for Einstein – the College runs one of the largest post-graduate medical training program in the United States, offering approximately 150 residency programs to more than 2,500 physicians in training. For more information, please visit http://www.aecom.yu.edu.