Benefit # 46 (of 71) of the California Stem Cell Research Program: FIGHTING OBESITY
By Don C. Reed
Why is it some people do not gain weight, even if they own stock in an ice cream parlor? These irritating people never seem to exercise or diet, and yet they stay lean and healthy. What gives them such an unfair advantage?
It may be the color of their fat.
Every adult human has a mixture of white, brown, and beige-colored fat.
Brown fat burns off quickly, as heat and energy; the athlete’s chiseled body means he/she has more brown fat. The beige fat is found in narrow threads; more on that later.
And we who fight the battle of the bulge? White fat is blubber, which mostly stores up around the middle: the gut or butt. When we “pinch an inch” on the waistline, that’s white fat. And when we clutch a handful– that’s obesity.
Does it matter, if we are thin or plump?
Unfortunately…It is life and death important. As our weight goes up, so do our chances of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, kidney problems, colon cancer, and stroke, to name a few.
How widespread is this threat? One Californian in four (26%) is obese: dangerously overweight. And California is more health conscious than many states! Nationally, the obesity index is worse, about 35%– one in three. (1)
Financially? The cost of treatment for obesity-related ailments is nearly $190 billion a year, roughly 20% of all medical costs … (2)
But remember the color of fat– what if we could change white fat to brown?
There are scientists trying to do just that.
One is Shingo Kachimura. He works at the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine, at the University of California at San Francisco.
Dr. Kajimura’s lab has a stated goal: “Engineering fat cells to fight obesity”. (3)
“Brown Adipose (fat) Tissue (BAT) acts…as a natural defense system …against the development of obesity…(which) has prompted our lab to examine the links between BAT, obesity, and metabolic disorders.” (4)
Remember those beige cells, threaded among the blubberous white fat?
“For the first time, a research team, led by UCSF biologist Shingo Kachimura, has isolated energy-burning “beige” fat from adult humans, which (may enable us) to convert unhealthy white fat into healthy brown fat…” (5)
The beige fat can apparently “recruit” (change) white fat cells to brown—or least give the white fat the ability to more easily burn off, as if it were brown.
We could lose weight more easily, live longer, healthier lives…
Shingo had (like me) an ocean background, growing up fishing almost every day, to supplement the family’s food supply. I called him for a phone interview, and it was hard not to spend our time talking about fish and sharks.
“I wondered how animals adapt to a severe environment,” he said, “humans use shivering as a way to generate heat, but animals don’t.
“In early 2000, only four or five labs were studying brown fat. One was led by Dr. Bruce Spiegelman, I was a research fellow under his leadership for several years.
“In 2009, two major discoveries changed fat research: first, it was found that humans kept small amounts of brown fat from infancy into adult years, and that was correlated with (how fat they were). If they were lean, more brown fat. Second, beige cells (could) recruit white fat into brown, or at least act like brown.
“We found a way to turn skin cells, muscle cells and white fat cells into brown fat.
“Since most people are reluctant to undergo transplant surgeries, we are currently trying to (develop) an injection or a pill, to help a patient fight obesity by turning white fat into brown.”—Shingo Kajimura, personal communication.
Another scientist with a long history of anti-obesity research is Chad Cowan from the Harvard Stem Cell Center, run by Brock Reeve, that superb organizer and fund-raiser, brother to the late stem cell champion, Christopher “Superman” Reeve. In a 2014 experiment, Cowan used stem cells as a testing device: trying to find out if there were drugs available which might change white fat into brown—or at least make the white fat function as if it was brown.
With the help of a pharmaceutical company, he ran through roughly thirteen hundred drugs. He found two that made the desired change—but they had dangerous side effects. Even so, the idea is valid; a larger pharma company would have access to millions of drugs, and hopefully some would be useful. (6)
Kajimura speaks highly of Cowan, crediting him with turning embryonic stem cells into brown fat, and repeating the effort with induced pluripotent stem cells.
If I had my way, scientists like Cowan and Kachimura would be locked in a laboratory, having a contest. They would not be allowed to come out (sorry, guys!) until one of them found a cure to obesity—with a huge money prize as incentive.
Well, maybe my idea is not completely practical! But there is precedent for a massive money prize, called a Social Investment Bond (SIB). The idea is that if somebody makes a positive change for society, they get a percentage of the savings it brings to the country, for an established length of time. (7) We do not have SIB grants in America yet, but the idea seems worth considering.
Nothing is easy. For instance, if a fat cell changes from beige to brown, will it stay that way, or shift back? (8)
If Shingo or Chad find the answer to obesity, they will have done the world an enormous favor. Imagine, making it possible for people to trade overweight bodies for health and fitness …
I wish them (and all cure research scientists) the very best of luck.
If they win, we win.
Don C. Reed is the author of the new book, “CALIFORNIA CURES: How the California Stem Cell Program is Fighting Your Incurable Disease!”, available now at: