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UMMS researchers illuminate origins, benefits of ‘beige fat’

By Megan Bard and Bryan Goodchild

UMass Medical School Communications

January 25, 2016

While the existence of beige fat has been known for a few years, there has been little understanding about where it originates and how it affects metabolism and glucose tolerance.

Researchers at UMass Medical School are now shedding light on the benefits of beige fat. According to a new paper by Silvia Corvera, MD, the Endowed Chair in Diabetes Research and professor of molecular medicine, every bit of our own fat has the ability to generate beige fat, which could potentially be deployed within ourselves to treat obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

A new paper by Dr. Corvera, published in Nature Medicine, helps to explain how beige fat is grown in the body and how it helps to regulate metabolism.

“This work increases our knowledge and opens the possibility of a place to look for new therapeutics that didn’t exist before,” Corvera said. “It not only tells us what is happening in our body and why our metabolism works the way it does, but we can now study these cells and see what they produce, we can coax them to grow. It’s a brand new platform to discover new medications for weight and metabolic disease.”

The process began when researchers in Corvera’s lab asked how and where fat cells originate. Based on research by others, they knew that brown fat is highly vascular and that where there is fat there are also blood vessels. Researchers in Corvera’s lab were able to grow blood vessels from tiny pieces of human fat in test tubes and observed that both white fat cells and brown-like fat cells (beige) were formed on the vessel’s branches. These findings showed that the cells derived from human capillary networks gave rise to beige fat cells. They further showed that these beige cells can be activated in vitro.

“This means that probably every piece of our fat has the ability to make these beige cells,” Corvera said. “It means that we could, in theory, trigger these thermogenic cells to form in different parts of the body and that would presumably help with weight loss, which could improve metabolism, diabetes or cardiovascular conditions.”

To test the theory, in part, researchers inserted beige fat cells into humanized mouse models and were able to determine that the animals’ metabolism improved. This demonstrated directly for the first time that beige fat cells are beneficial, according to Corvera.

“The finding that human beige adipocytes enhance glucose homeostasis provides a clear rationale for their potential therapeutic use,” Corvera said.