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A new technique to measure brown adipose tissue activity, a key organism in the development of obesity

The Regulation of Lipid Metabolism in Obesity and Diabetes UB Group.

The Regulation of Lipid Metabolism in Obesity and Diabetes UB Group.



Experts from the Institute of Biomedicine of Barcelona ( IBUB ) have created a new technique to measure the energy production and use in brown adipose tissue, a key organ in obesity due its capacity to oxidize fat and dissipate energy as heat. This method, published in the scientific journal Advanced Science , improved the precision of previous techniques to fight obesity. This disease has duplicated its prevalence between 1980 and 2014, according to data from the World Health Organization (WHO), and it is an important risk factor for the development of several health problems such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, Alzheimer disease or some types of cancer.

The study has been led by Dolors Serra, Laura Herrero and María Calderon-Dominguez, from the Faculty of Pharmacy and Food Sciences, IBUB and the Physiopathology of Obesity and Nutrition Networking Biomedical Research Centre (CIBERobn). The study also counts with the participation of David Sebastián and Antonio Zorzano, from the Faculty of Biology of the University of Barcelona, the Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB Barcelona) and the Diabetes and Associated Metabolic Diseases Networking Biomedical Research Centre (CIBERdem), and Martín Alcalá and Marta Viana, from CEU San Pablo University.

The new technique is based on Seahorse technology and it allows researchers to study the parameters of mitochondrial bioenergetics in the adipose tissue as well as the amount of oxygen dedicated to produce energy and the maximum respiratory capacity of the tissue. Also, this is directly done in explants, isolated live tissues from mice. According to Dolors Serra, main researcher of the Regulation of Lipid Metabolism in Obesity and Diabetes UB Group, “So far, cellular respiration had been analysed in cultured cells or isolated mitochondria which were bound to break during the separation process. Considering the whole tissue and not only cellular populations is a direct approach that provides a more realistic view on physiological respiration.”

A therapeutic target to fight obesity

Understanding the activity of the adipose tissue is important due its involvement in the physiopathology of obesity. While the white adipose tissue is the main organ storing energy in triglycerides, brown adipose tissue is rich in mitochondria, which produces energy in the cell. Mitochondria burn fatty acids and glucose to turn them into useful energy, taking oxygen in the process. Also, brown adipose tissue has a high concentration of uncoupling protein 1 (UCP-1). This protein does not go through the respiratory chain so instead of creating useful energy, it dissipates energy as heat. This function, known as nonshivering thermogenesis is essential in newborns in order to keep their body temperature.

Laura Herrero, head of the research study, says that “Brown adipose tissue oxidising fat and dissipating energy as heat, took the attention of researchers due its potential as a therapeutic target to treat several metabolic diseases, including obesity and diabetes.”

Testing drugs to activate thermogenesis

The presence of brown adipose tissue was considered residual in adult human beings, and it was thought to appear only in babies. However, in 2009, several independent research groups identified the presence of brown adipose tissue in adults, which was reduced with ageing, obesity and diabetes.

According to the researchers, the applications of this method include the analysis of how different factors –such as the diet, ageing or genotypes- can alter the functionality of the brown adipose tissue. Moreover, they show how to adapt this method in order to test potential drugs to activate the thermogenesis as an anti-obesity strategy.

Reference article:

M. Calderón Domínguez, M. Alcalá, A. Zorzano, M. Viana, D. Serra and L. Herrero. «Brown adipose tissue bioenergetics: a new methodological approach». Advanced Science, april 2017. Doi: 10.1002/advs.201770017

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