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Have we finally found the key to treating obesity?

New research has found that inosine activates brown fat cells that act as natural heaters and help the body burn fat

Research teams all over the world are seeking compounds that promote brown fat and thereby improve fat burning
Research teams all over the world are seeking compounds that promote brown fat and thereby improve fat burning (Photo by Towfiqu Barbhuiya, Unsplash)

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Fat cells often store energy. However, energy is lost as heat in brown fat cells; as a result, brown fat acts as a biological heater. This mechanism is consequently present in most mammals. In adults, brown fat activation is positively correlated with cardiometabolic health in humans because it keeps infants warm.

But now, Prof. Dr Alexander Pfeifer from the University of Bonn's Institute of Pharmacology and Toxicology says, "We're toasty warm even in cold." Therefore, the body's own furnaces are not as frequently required. In addition, we are moving much less than our ancestors and eating food that is more energy dense. Brown fat cells are poisoned by these three elements: They eventually stop functioning completely and even pass away. On the other side, the number of people who are extremely overweight is rising globally. Therefore, Pfeifer says, "Research teams all over the world are seeking compounds that promote brown fat and thereby improve fat burning."

Also Read: Why obesity is a growing problem among kids?

The team at the University of Bonn has now discovered a crucial chemical called inosine that is capable of burning fat in conjunction with a group of colleagues. According to Dr Birte Niemann of Pfeifer's study team, "it is known that dying cells emit a mixture of messenger molecules that affect the function of their neighbours." She organised and carried out the study's key experiments with the assistance of her colleague Dr Saskia Haufs-Brusberg. "We were curious as to whether brown fat was likewise subject to this process."

Therefore, the researchers looked at brown fat cells that had been under extreme stress to the point where the cells were almost dead. According to Niemann, "We observed that they secrete huge amounts of purine inosine." The way undamaged brown fat cells responded to the chemical cry for assistance, though, was more intriguing. Inosine activated them (or simply by dying cells in their vicinity). Inosine fueled their internal fire in this way. Additionally, white fat cells had a brown sibling conversion. Mice that were given a high-energy diet and inosine treatment at the same time remained thinner than control animals and were shielded from developing diabetes.

In this situation, the inosine transporter protein in the cell membrane, which transports inosine into the cell and lowers the extracellular levels, appears to be crucial. As a result, inosine is no longer able to promote combustion.

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According to Pfeifer, who is also a member of the University of Bonn's Transdisciplinary Research Areas "Life and Health" and "Sustainable Futures," there is a medication that was created for coagulation issues but also inhibits the inosine transporter. "The mice we were given this medication to burned more calories as a result," Inosine transporters are also present in humans. It is less active in two to four per cent of persons due to a genetic difference.

Pfeifer states that "900 individuals have undergone genetic analysis by our colleagues at the University of Leipzig." On average, the participants with the less active transporter were noticeably thinner.

These findings imply that inosine controls thermogenesis in human brown fat cells as well. Therefore, drugs that prevent the transporter from functioning properly may be useful for treating obesity. A good place to start would be the medication that has already been approved for coagulation problems. The pharmacological potential of this pathway, however, needs to be clarified by additional research in humans, according to Pfeifer. He also does not think that a medication will be sufficient to end the global epidemic of obesity. But, he emphasises, that "the treatments that are currently accessible are not sufficient enough." Therefore, medicine is absolutely necessary to restore the energy balance of obese people.

A significant newly formed research group also highlights the crucial function the body's own heating system plays: The Universities of Bonn, Hamburg, and Munich recently received approval from the German Research Foundation (DFG) to form a Transregional Collaborative Research Center to perform focused studies on brown adipose tissue. 

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