Shingo Kajimura, Ph.D., isn't just setting out to fight fat, he's planning to use it as a weapon. First it helps to understand that we all have two kinds of fat cells in our bodies, the familiar white fat which stores calories and lesser known brown fat that actually burns calories.
"This means if you are obese, you tend to have less brown fat. Whereas if you're lean, you tend to have more brown fat," said Kajimura.
Scientists say the brown fat cells help small mammals like mice keep their body temperatures up by producing heat as they burn calories. The same is true for human babies. But the ratio of brown cells in our bodies typically plummets as we grow.
But what if there was a way to change that equation to safely increase the number of brown fat cells in obese patients? Kajimura and his team believe they have made a breakthrough that could ultimately allow doctors do just that.
While investigating a common diabetes drug using a mouse model, the UCSF researchers isolated a protein that converts ordinary white fat cells into the calorie burning kind. The protein exists in both mice and humans.
"So now we know how to make brown fat. So what we're testing is making brown fat chemically with drugs," said Kajimura.
He says the next challenge is to find a safe molecule to control the protein. If successful, Kajimura believes the result could be a new form of anti-obesity drugs. That could be used alongside traditional appetite suppressants.
"What we'd like to do is to create a completely new obesity therapy by essentially creating more brown fat by drugs and this will be a completely novel way to treat obesity," said Kajimura.
It's a therapy of fighting fat with fat. The UCSF team believes they could have a drug ready for clinical trials in the next few years.
Written and produced by Tim Didion