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Stem cell scientists convert white fat to brown fat

Harvard Stem Cell Institute (HSCI) researchers have taken what they describe as “the first step toward a pill that can replace the treadmill” for the control of obesity, though that shift, of course, would not provide all of the many benefits of exercise.

HSCI principal faculty member Chad Cowan and his team members at Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), a Harvard affiliate, say they have created a system using human stem cells to screen for compounds that have the potential to turn white, or “bad,” fat cells into brown, or “good,” fat cells, and have already identified two compounds that can accomplish that in human cells.

The path from these findings to a safe and effective medication may not be easy, and the findings will have to be replicated by other research groups, as well as refined, before they could lead to a clinical treatment.

However, Cowan said that the two compounds discovered so far “target the same molecule, and that molecule plays a role in the inflammatory response. So if you administered them for a long time, the person taking them could become immune-compromised,” which argues against the use of these initial compounds without modifications. One, however, is already on the market, as a treatment approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for rheumatoid arthritis.

White fat cells store energy as lipids and play a role in the development of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and related conditions, including heart disease, while brown fat has been shown in mice to lower triglyceride levels, reduce the insulin resistance associated with type 2 diabetes, and burn white fat.

[Fat Cells]
This image shows human pluripotent stem cell-derived fat cells.
Credit: Tim Ahfeldt/Harvard University


Harvard University