No one would complain about losing a few pounds without needing to diet or exercise. For some people, losing weight isn’t about looking good though—it’s about taking care of their health. Researchers think that they have a solution.
A team from Harvard Medical School used the gene-editing CRISPR technique to give mice fat cells that help the body burn calories quicker. This approach could be used to help prevent things like obesity, diabetes, and even heart disease.
However, more research needs to be done before it can be tested in humans.
Yu-Hua Tseng is a diabetes researcher from Harvard Medical School that has been studying fat cells for years. Her team focuses on the difference between white and brown fat cells.
White fat cells store energy for food. Conversely, brown fat cells play a role in keeping the body temperature stable—especially in colder weather. For that reason, brown fat cells have more mitochondria and are better at breaking down nutrients.
Unfortunately, most fat in the human body is comprised of white fat cells. That leaves millions of people with obesity and related problems like type two diabetes.
Tseng and her team believe that altering white fat cells to make them more like brown fat cells could be a useful treatment for obesity. Their research, published on Wednesday in the journal Science Translational Medicine, showed that the idea is plausible—at least in mice.
The researchers used CRISPR to alter precursor white fat cells, allowing them to express a protein typically only found in brown fat cells. Known as uncoupling protein 1 (UCP1), it is believed to enhance a fat cell’s energy-burning abilities.
The genetically-modified cells, codenamed HUMBLE, were then transplanted into obese mice. Researchers studied them compared to two groups of control mice who were given either regular white fat cells or regular brown fat cells respectively.
The experiment showed that mice with HUMBLE cells performed better than mice with white fat cells and about equal to those with brown fat cells.
Tseng says, “They’re able to clear their glucose much quicker; they’re able to better respond to insulin. And in terms of weight gain, they can gain less weight compared to the control mice.”
She adds, “So all that signifies an improvement to their metabolism.”
Proof of Concept
For now, the experiment shows that using CRISPR in this capacity is theoretically possible. It certainly doesn’t prove that the method would work in humans.
The team notes that the approach has several limitations that could affect how it works in the human body. For one, the cells used in the study were taken from just two people. Every individual’s unique immune system could affect how HUMBLE cells work. As such, they need to be studied more closely and in more diverse conditions before something like a clinical trial program could be started.
Limitations aside, the results are promising. They bring us one step closer to a viable solution that helps people prevent or reduce obesity.