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Scientists have discovered a molecular “on-off switch” that helps the body burn fat and calories, opening the door to new diabetes and obesity drugs.
The discovery, by researchers from the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, involves how the body converts unhealthy white fat into what’s called “brown fat,” that raises body temperature and naturally burns calories.
In a study published in the journal Cell Metabolism, the team reported that a particular protein, known as Grb10, is an on-off switch for that conversion and is stimulated by cold temperatures.
“We know that if we want to keep our body lean, we have to get rid of extra nutrients in the body, which means burning more energy,” said researcher Feng Liu, professor of pharmacology at the UT Health Science Center and director of the Metabolic Syndrome Research Center at Xiangya Second Hospital in China.
“Understanding how [that process] is controlled is so very important because if we can improve energy expenditure, we can reduce obesity.”
So-called white fat is the unhealthful kind stored in the body when we eat too much and don’t exercise enough to burn off those excess calories. Brown or beige fat, however, is a healthy variety that helps burn calories.
“Normally when we eat something, we store it in white fat,” explained Lily Dong, a professor of cellular and structural biology at the UT Health Science Center. “For the extra food we eat, it is better to release it, not store it. So finding a way to turn the white fat into beige and burn the energy that normally we store would have high therapeutic potential for the treatment of obesity and its related diseases. [The new study] has identified the pathway to do this.”
Researchers said the findings could inform other research into aging, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.