As a growing amount of the world's population battles with obesity and illnesses that are related to it, the scientific community has been hard at work in finding out ways to reverse the process without using surgical or other methods.

According to the World Health Organization's (WHO) 2016 numbers, about 13% of the world's adult population were found to be overweight, which was a number of more than 1.9 billion adults. About 650 million of those were obese, putting them at the risk of developing illnesses in the future as the burden of obesity continues to rise sharply around the world. According to the statistics, these numbers have tripled since the year 1975, pointing at a difficult battle ahead for the healthcare and scientific community.

However, new studies into the field with the help of gene-editing tools have found that your metabolism may be tweaked or adjusted to help you burn more calories and be able to process and absorb the glucose from foods in an improved manner. In fact, the process won't even require complex surgeries and medical procedures to manage the problem of obesity in people; the new method—if it reaches the human trial stage and succeeds—will simply reengineer the body's fat to function more efficiently.

The findings of this fascinating new study were published in the journal Science Translational Medicine—the research was conducted by scientists at the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston as well as other centres.

  1. Function of different fat cells
  2. Altering white fat cells to work like brown fat cells

There are three different kinds of fat cells inside the human body known as white, brown and beige. They are stored in different ways in the body to be used as energy later on: essential, subcutaneous and visceral fat. The fat that commonly gets stored around the belly region (in the abdominal cavity) is known as visceral fat.

As visceral fat gets stored around organs such as the stomach, liver and the intestines, it is important to keep the volume of visceral fat low, as it can eventually also build up in the arteries. Although not all belly fat is visceral (subcutaneous fat is also stored under the skin of the stomach, arms and legs), it carries a significant risk of developing health problems if not controlled or managed well.

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Recent research into the subject of metabolic disease has suggested that the different kinds of fat have their effect on the human body in the development of such conditions.

Using this knowledge of how the different kinds of fat cells have different effects on the body, the researchers have come up with a proof of concept for a novel cell-based treatment plan against metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and other conditions linked to obesity.

Brown fat cells or brown adipose tissue (BAT) are known for burning energy in the human body, besides storing heat and helping the body to maintain its temperature. By contrast, white fat cells or white adipose tissue (WAT) is used to store excess energy. As all fat cells essentially store lipids, white fat cells are triggered when insulin is released from the pancreas.

The scientists have proposed the transplant of HUMBLE (human brown-like) fat cells, which are essentially white fat cells that have been genetically re-engineered into brown fat cells. As brown fat cells burn energy, which is the opposite function of white fat cells, these new cells can help lower excessive levels of glucose and lipids in the blood, thereby reducing the risk of developing metabolic diseases.

Read more: How a chain reaction in white fat cells aggravates obesity and related diseases

Overweight or obese people have less accumulation of brown fat cells as excess fat getting stored in the body is indicative of more white fat cells in the system. This treatment with the use of HUMBLE cells is particularly useful in these situations.

The researchers used CRISPR technology which is a tool for editing genomes, as it allows practitioners to edit or alter DNA sequences and modify the functioning of the genes. CRISPR technology has already been in use to treat genetic disorders and control the spread of various diseases.

The investigation into fat cells called for the researchers to boost the expression of a gene known as UCP1, which triggers the progenitors of white fat cells which instead develop into cells that look like brown fat cells. The research was carried out in mice which did not have an adequate immune system, which led to the HUMBLE fat cells acting like their own brown fat cells.

It was also reported that the mice with HUMBLE transplants put on less weight as compared to mice who were transplanted white fat cells after both groups were placed on a high-fat diet. Those with HUMBLE transplants had a greater response to insulin and were efficient in using up glucose in the blood. These are the two major functions that are impaired in patients with type 2 diabetes.

Read more: Exercises for diabetes

The results of this study appear to be pathbreaking, although the individualised application of HUMBLE cells in each patient may prove to be a costly affair. The researchers have proposed its use in gene therapy and via biometricals. Biometricals is a process that helps to prevent rejection of the cells by the immune system, as it happens in the development of various diseases.

Researchers have made this breakthrough despite the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic that refuses to die down. However, the development is all the more significant as people with underlying conditions such as obesity and diabetes are at an elevated risk of suffering from the severe symptoms of the new coronavirus infection, also increasing the chances of fatality in them.

Read more: Obesity increases chances of COVID-19 death by 48%

This new breakthrough can help reduce overall body weight, improve an individual's metabolism as well as their quality of life and health of people living with metabolic diseases.

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References

  1. Wang CH et al. CRISPR-engineered human brown-like adipocytes prevent diet-induced obesity and ameliorate metabolic syndrome in mice. Science Translational Medicine. 2020 Aug; 12(558): eaaz8664.
  2. World Health Organization [Internet]. Geneva (SUI): World Health Organization; Obesity and overweight.
  3. Koh EH et al. miR-30a Remodels Subcutaneous Adipose Tissue Inflammation to Improve Insulin Sensitivity in Obesity. Diabetes. 2018 Dec; 67(12): 2541-2553.
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