Dana-Farber May Be On Its Way to a New Obesity Treatment

It found an amino acid that makes brown fat burn calories.

In 2009, researchers from Joslin Diabetes Center discovered brown fat, a type of fat tissue that burns calories instead of storing them, in the bodies of adult humans—proving that the substance was not unique to babies and animals, as scientists at the time believed.

In the seven years since that finding, brown fat has been much-lauded as a potential weight loss miracle. The challenge, however, has been understanding the substance and how it really works.

On Thursday, researchers from Dana-Farber Cancer Institute (DCFI) and the University of California, Berkeley published a paper that may bring the scientific community one step closer. The team, which published its results in Cell, says it may have found a specific amino acid that allows fat to switch from storage mode to calorie burning mode.

The researchers studied mice to find the particular mechanism by which brown fat works. They found an enzyme, PM20D1, that activates N-acyl amino acids, which seem to kickstart brown fat’s calorie burning abilities and spur weight loss. A specific mitochondrial protein, called UCP1, has been linked to brown fat in the past, but the DCFI research suggests a whole new process by which the tissue revs up to burn energy.

They tested that theory by injecting mice with the N-acyl amino acids, and saw that the subjects lost significant amounts of weight—all from fatty tissues—after eight days. Even more exciting, they believe the same result could happen in humans.

“These data certainly suggest that either PM20D1 or N-acyl amino acids themselves might be used therapeutically for the treatment of obesity and other obesity-associated disorders, such as diabetes and fatty liver disease,” lead researcher Bruce Spiegelman said in a statement.

The road from mouse trials to human treatments is a long one, so don’t hold your breath. In the meantime, though, you could try Joslin’s brown-fat activating exercise program.