Researchers Pave Way for Anti-Obesity Drug

A group of researchers led by Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology associate professor Chad Cowan have discovered compounds that could serve as a tool in the fight against obesity.

The significance of the discovery, according to Cowan, lies in its potential to transform the body’s energy-storing white fat into energy-burning brown fat.

“[White fat] provides energy back to the body when you are in caloric debt,” Cowan said, noting that white fat cells store energy in the form of fat deposits for extended periods. Brown fat cells, on the other hand, expend energy to regulate body temperature and are positively correlated with a lower body weight.

Recently, the researchers discovered two compounds that foster the transformation of white fat cells into brown cells, potentially enabling the body to burn more calories from its fat reserves.

“The [transformed] cell burns off energy and creates heat,” Cowan said. Most importantly, he noted, the converted cells continue to behave like brown cells even after the converting compound is removed from the cell.

Cowan’s findings represent a “fantastic discovery,” according to Patricia K. Donahoe, a research director at Massachusetts General Hospital who studies stem cells. “Understanding this pathway could have tremendous results in the medical industry,” she said.

Though the compounds Cowan discovered have shown signs of success in mice, he and his team hope to develop their results into drugs for humans. The first step, Cowan said, is to find similar compounds that have already been approved for human use.

“If we found drugs that were already in use in man, the development of the pill would be very quick,” he said. “However, it could take as many as ten years.”

One of the most immediate benefits of the prospective pill would be the development of a new way to fight obesity, though Cowan stressed that this pill would not be a panacea. For one, he said, white fat is essential, and lacking fat is just as detrimental as having too much.

In addition, he noted, his discovery does not prepare the way for a world without exercise.

“My one reservation is that I would never want people to think that this medication would replace physical activity,” he said. “It wouldn’t replace all the other benefits of exercise such as increased bone mass, muscle mass, and flexibility.”

—Staff writer Jiwo Joung can be reached at joung@college.harvard.edu.

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