Texas researchers discover way to turn fat cells into energy-burning cells

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Researchers study fat cells at the University of Texas’ Southwest Medical Center. (Courtesy: University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Researchers at the University of Texas’ Southwestern Medical Center have discovered a way to successfully edit genes to turn fat cells into cells that burn energy.

So far, it’s only been done successfully in mice, but trials are underway involving human cells in petri dishes.

“When you flip off the switch and turn these white fat cells into energy-burning cells, it first and foremost prevents the mice from becoming obese, once they start eating this caloric diet, what we call a high-fat diet,” said Dr. Rana Gupta, the lead researcher.

The method changes the role of white fat cells, one of two types of fat cells. The body uses these to store energy, and they expand and multiply as a person becomes more obese.

The other type is the beige and brown fat cell. These cells burn energy and are much less numerous than white fat cells.

Through a technology known as CRISPR, the researchers were able to edit the genome and DNA sequences of the white fat cells and turn them into energy-burning cells instead.

“It’s a protein that’s present more in white fat cells than it is in the energy-burning fat cells, and we observed that and realized, well if it’s expressed and present more in the white fat cells, maybe it’s there for a reason,” Gupta said. “It was acting as sort of a molecular brake that was clamping down on those cells’ ability to burn energy. When we removed this brake pedal, the machinery that allows cells to burn energy can now become active.”

Gupta says the breakthrough could have a major impact on obesity in the U.S., which he calls the pandemic before the pandemic.

The percentage of obese Americans jumped from 30.5% in 1999-2000 to 42.4% in 2017-2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Texas, 35.8% of residents were obese in 2020, ranking it number 11 among states with the highest obesity rates.

“Ultimately what we envision is that this could be a way to help individuals with obesity and diabetes, in combination with diet and exercise, to either promote weight loss or improve their diabetes,” Gupta said.

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