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Health & Wellness

The Cure for Obesity: Fat?

Fighting Fat: BU researchers probe energy-burning brown type


In part two of a four-part series on the nation’s obesity epidemic, BU Today spotlights the innovative research taking place at BU to better understand and solve this health problem.

It’s as counterintuitive as counterintuition can be: could the breakthrough fix for fatness be found in—fat?

It turns out that all fat is not created equal. Brown fat, named for its color and found in small amounts in strange places like our backs and necks, burns calories instead of warehousing them. Until three years ago, no one even knew adults had brown fat. Researchers had found it in rodents and human babies, both of whom cannot shiver (which burns calories) and therefore need brown fat as a heat-maker to stay warm. Then they studied scans of adults in cold rooms and voilà—grownups had brown fat, too.

So the purpose of brown fat is to help people to stay warm when it’s cold. But this calorie incinerator could be a potential weight-shedding wonder, too. Boston Medical Center’s Caroline Apovian and Megan Ruth find the potential so promising that Ruth and another colleague have pored over 1,100 PET scans—done at BMC between 2006 and 2009—to find appropriate subjects for research into brown fat.

Apovian—a School of Medicine professor and head of the BMC Nutrition and Weight Management Center—and Ruth, a BMC postdoctoral associate, are part of a team that devised a software program to quantify the amount of brown fat in the people who were scanned. They narrowed the field to 35 scans.

“What we’d like to do is figure out a way to activate that brown fat and have the white fat around it”—the ordinary kind—“make more brown fat,” says Apovian. She is hopeful that if they can trick the body into producing more brown fat, “people won’t have to exercise, which nobody seems to want to do.”

Boston University BU obesity research, brown fat, Boston Medical Center, BMC nutrition and weight management center, Caroline Apovian Megan Ruth research

Comparison of 18F-FDG-PET/CT image (top) with algorithm-generated image (bottom) exemplifying BAT in supraclavicular region (coronal view). BAT appears bright white/yellow in 18F-FDG-PET/CT and green in computer-generated image (white=bone).

The work done by Apovian and her team complements research at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, where researchers engineered brown fat production in mice. They’re “doing work in animals. We do human research,” Apovian says.

The first step in cracking the riddle of how to make brown fat is pinpointing and measuring how much you have to begin with. Enter the computer program, which allows the researchers to measure brown fat in the scans without the aid of a radiologist.

The BU researchers are seeking funding for their next step, which will test their software program on actual subjects rather than scans. For the subjects, it will be, quite literally, chilling work: the researchers will make them cold—they may stand on an ice block or don a bomb deactivation suit filled with cold water—allowing the program to measure brown fat before and after the onset of cold. “The more obese you are, the less brown fat you have,” says Apovian. “The more brown fat you have, the more calories you can burn.…It seems that there’s more brown fat in lean people, and so our hypothesis is that that’s why they’re lean. But we don’t know that.” She says it could be six months before they have the money in hand to proceed.

It’s too soon for us to cancel our gym memberships, though. “In the next 10 years, we’re not curing the obesity epidemic,” Apovian says. “We don’t know enough about brown fat. We may find that we can’t activate it. We may find that we can activate it, but it doesn’t contribute that much, because there’s not a lot of it. We may find that it causes cancer. This is just at the very beginning stages. Maybe in 50 years, we’ll have found a way to turn white fat into brown fat so that you can eat whatever you want, eat junk food, and still stay lean. But not now.”

The project’s other researchers are Thomas Szabo, a College of Engineering research professor, Gustavo Mercier, a MED assistant professor, and Tyler Wellman (ENG’13).

Next, in part four of our series, “Exploring the Causes of Black Women’s Obesity.” Read the entire series here.

Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

10 Comments on The Cure for Obesity: Fat?

  • Molly on 11.28.2012 at 9:54 am

    Even if this did “cure the obesity epidemic,” that doesn’t mean we can all stop exercising. There are more health benefits to physical fitness than just decreasing your fat mass.

    • Ben on 11.28.2012 at 11:44 am

      Agreed. Also, if you alter one factor, it may have unknown repercussions. Brown fat tends to go hand in hand with other nutrients and things naturally found in the food we eat, such as vitamins, cholesterol, etc. (which is also vital for our health). Gaining extra brown fat without the nutrition that goes along with it naturally may not turn out as expected.

    • Jennifer on 11.29.2012 at 7:20 am

      Physical activity and diet are the primary, root factors that contribute to obesity, with environment, education and socioeconomic status being effect modifiers, the extent of which we do not fully understand yet. I would rather see research resources being spent on practices and processes that improve those factors rather than tricking the bodies natural processes.

  • Anthony on 11.28.2012 at 11:49 am

    The CDC’s “causes” do nothing to pinpoint the biochemical mechanisms for why people store fat in the first place. The researchers do not acknowledge the role carbohydrates play in inducing an insulin response, whose primary role is to store fat in fat tissue. Here’s an inforgraphic that explains the process in a simple way. http://www.foodtechconnect.com/2012/01/26/infographic-of-the-week-carbs-are-killing-you/

    The low-fat, high-carb dogma of modern nutrition has done a great deal of harm since being implemented in the late 1970’s (USDA Food Pyramid). Carbohydrates, and particularly sugar, are becoming less and less popular, while low carb/primal/paleo ways of eating are on the rise.

    Many of the conclusions fed to the public are not based in rigorous scientific work, but epidemiological studies, which are nothing more than statistical analyses of (usually unreliable) data to find correlations between variables. This says nothing about cause and effect. A more scientific approach to finding the causes and effects of overweight and obesity is the goal of The Nutrition Science Initiative (NUSI), a “Manhattan Project” style of research. More information can be found at http://www.NUSI.org

  • Umm... on 11.28.2012 at 6:47 pm

    Interesting research. However, no scientific breakthrough or miracle pill/surgery/younameit can replace the need to exercise and eat a balanced diet.

  • Mikki0806 on 11.30.2012 at 6:52 am

    Gastric bypass cost prevents me from undergoing the surgery. It is very expensive and I am considering a safer and inexpensive solution which is better than gastric bypass surgery: Roca Labs costs only $640 compared to $12,000 gastric bypass surgery cost. Anyway, gastric bypass NO surgery sound better. But, I am not sure how good Roca Labs is….

    • Carol Suby on 11.10.2015 at 2:15 pm

      Dear Mikki, If possible, try to attend an Overeaters Anonymous meeting at the Newton Wellesley Hospital in Newton MA. I believe it is at 7:30 a.m., but call the hospital to confirm. (Also, I believe there is an Overeaters Anonymous web site; which probably has lists of meeting locations…) Save your $$$$, go to some Overeaters Anonymous meetings. (I prefer the meetings with a 90 day requirement…. which means the people who speak have 90 days or more not eating flour or sugar/not eating compulsively. ) Bring a buck to toss in the “basket…” It will be the BEST $$$ you have ever spent on yourself in your life. Best of Luck, Carol

  • Tracy on 01.09.2013 at 9:47 am

    Just an FYI-Brown fat was discovered more than three years ago. Bodybuilders have been using the asthma drug, clenbuterol, off-label for decades. Clenbuterol targets brown fat and revs it up to burn more fat.

  • White Patches On Face on 07.19.2013 at 12:48 pm

    My daughter had those white spots all the time when she was a teenager. I asked the doctor about it and he said she was lacking something in her diet but, I can’t remember what.

  • Carol Suby on 11.10.2015 at 2:10 pm

    Some people are addicted to Alcohol. Some people are addicted to food. Some people are addicted to…. (fill in the blanks!) Regarding Food Addiction, if the “researchers” want to “get the skinny” about this disease, I suggest they attend an Overeaters Anonymous meeting at Newton Wellesley Hospital some Saturday morning. (Call the hospital to check on exact time; location is in the Auditorium. It is ALWAYS packed!) As for Adriel’s comment regarding “instead….” if it were this easy then obesity would not exist!!!!

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