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New technique converts white fat to brown fat

The research is based on the premise that increased levels of healthy brown fat could help a person with weight management and perhaps also reduce symptoms of diabetes. The new technique, which comes from Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Science, is a a method to directly convert white fat to brown fat outside the body and then reimplant it back into a patient. This type of fat-grafting is not dissimilar from that used by plastic surgeons, whereby fat is harvested from beneath the skin and retransplanted into the same patient in order to carry out reconstructive surgery.

Brown fat differs to white fat. Brown adipose tissue (or brown fat) makes up the adipose organ together with white adipose tissue (or white fat). Brown fat is made of several small lipid droplets and a large number of iron-containing mitochondria. Brown fat is usually found in the front and back of the neck and upper back. The purpose of brown fat is to burn calories in order to generate heat.

White fat is predominant form of fat in the body, originating from connective tissue. This type of fat is an insulator and it is largest energy reserve in the body. The problem arises when there is too much of it. Excessive white fat, especially visceral fat, can result in an increased risk of metabolic dysfunction, heart disease, some cancers, and type 2 diabetes.

With the new technology, lead researcher Professor Sam Sia explains: “Our approach to increasing brown fat is potentially safer than drugs because the only thing going into patients is their own tissue, and it’s highly controllable because we can tune the amount of brown fat we inject.”

He adds that, probably in the near future: “The process is also so simple that it could be potentially performed using an automated system within a doctor’s office or clinic.” The process involved converting white fat to brown fat by culturing adipose tissue fragments in culture media containing growth factors together with other endogenous browning factors. It took one to three weeks to stimulate the “browning” process.

To date the studies have only been conducted on mice, and while the browning of fat was successful the procedure did not lead to weight loss. Further study is required before the technology becomes something that is applicable to humans.

The research has been published in the journal Scientific Reports. The research paper is titled “A direct tissue-grafting approach to increasing endogenous brown fat.”

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Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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