Silencing a protein could turn fat cells into energy burners in individuals at risk for type 2 diabetes

Silencing the neuropeptide Y (NPY) protein in the brain may turn adipose tissue into a type of fat that burns excess energy rather than storing it, according to a new study from Johns Hopkins University researchers. The findings could have major implications for obese individuals who are at risk for developing type 2 diabetes.

Most adipose tissue in the body is known as white fat. This material is what the body uses to store excess energy and is typically located around the midsection. High levels of this fat have been shown to increase an individual’s risk of chronic diseases, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

However, there is another type of adipose tissue that serves a very different function. Brown fat instructs the body to burn unneeded calories. Most adults have very little of this tissue.

Yet it may be possible for individuals to develop more. The researchers reported in the journal Cell Metabolism that silencing the NPY protein in the brain turns typical white fat cells into energy-burning brown adipose tissue.

The team began experimenting with switching off the expression of NPY protein in laboratory mice because it had previously been shown to mediate feelings of hunger and thirst. They speculated that by silencing the protein, mice would want to eat less. As expected, their study showed that this was the case. However, more surprisingly, mice that lacked expression of the NPY protein also had considerably more brown fat.

Excess fat is one of the main risk factors for type 2 diabetes, and any method of preventing its accumulation could have major benefits. While the use of these techniques in humans will still require significant development, the researchers said they remain hopeful that such a tool could help curb the diabetes and obesity epidemics.
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