Researchers find way to prevent excess fat storage, reduce risk of type 2 diabetes in mice

Excessive fat buildup is one of the leading risk factors for type 2 diabetes, but a team of researchers from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases may have found a way to get the body to burn excess calories rather than store them as fat.

The team reported their findings in the journal Cell Metabolism. The research has the potential to head off the obesity epidemic that is currently growing more dire each year. While diet and exercise programs are an effective way to control excess fat storage, few people stick to these programs. Finding a way to prevent the body from accumulating extra fat could be much more effective.

In testing on mice, the researchers found that it may be possible to take white fat cells, which are responsible for storing calories and creating new adipose tissue, and get them to function more like brown fat cells, which are tightly packed with energy-burning mitochondria, which are known to eliminate excess calories.

The secret to this process lies in the function of a protein known as TGF-beta. The researchers found that when this molecule was blocked in the mouse test subjects, white fat cells began accumulating more mitochondria and displaying characteristics of brown fat cells.

TGF-beta can be blocked in two ways, the researchers found. It is possible to genetically engineer mice to be deficient in the molecule. Additionally, the team was able to develop antibodies, which are different proteins that inhibit the activity of TGF-beta.

In the study, mice that had the protein blocked burned far more calories and were less likely to become obese than test subjects that had normal metabolic function. This could have important implications for the millions of people who struggle with type 2 diabetes as a result of obesity.

While the findings in mice are not immediately applicable to humans, the researchers called the results a potentially exciting development in the battle against obesity and type 2 diabetes.

"Efforts to reduce obesity by dieting are mostly unsuccessful in the long term, so finding ways to prevent excess fat storage is an urgent medical need," said Sushil Rane, PhD, one of the researchers involved with the study. "Our discovery that white fat can be reduced by partially transforming it to brown fat and muscle opens up new avenues to combat the obesity epidemic."

Obesity continues to be a major problem in society. A recent paper from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that nine states currently have obesity rates of 30 percent or higher. Furthermore, experts believe that the aging population will continue to drive type 2 diabetes rates even higher.

In order to avert the public health crisis that could be triggered by these trends, the healthcare system will need to develop new ways of dealing with obesity and type 2 diabetes. The findings from the current study could go a long way toward accomplishing this.