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Scientists are edging closer to more effective therapies to treat obesity. Design by MNT; Photography by BSIP/Getty Images & Hinterhaus Productions/Getty Images
  • Obesity is a condition that can increase the risk of specific health problems, such as type 2 diabetes.
  • T​here are different types of fat that impact the body differently; white fat cells, for example, store extra energy, while brown fat cells help convert fat into energy.
  • A recent study found that the metabolite myristoylglycine helped to convert white fat cells into brown fat cells, which could aid in weight loss.

Maintaining a healthy amount of body fat is part of overall well-being. It also decreases the risk of specific health problems, making it a critical factor in preventive medicine. However, experts are still researching the best methods to help people working to maintain or reach a healthy body composition.

A​ recent study published in Metabolites found that a specific metabolite may be vital in helping some people lose excess body weight. They found that this metabolism product could help convert fat into a form that is easier to burn.

Everyone has unique nutritional needs, and there are various body types and weight needs. A person with excess weight is at a greater risk for specific health problems. People with obesity have a higher risk of developing high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and coronary heart disease.

Wendy Lord, registered dietitian who was not involved in this current research, explained to Medical News Today:

“Since the 80s, obesity has been rapidly increasing and is now termed a modern-day plague. This problem is closely associated with other medical conditions and can lead to joint pain, cardiovascular diseases, stroke, or type 2 diabetes. Excess weight not only drains you of a lot of energy but also hinders free and easy movement, for example, climbing stairs without shortness of breath.”

While some people can lose weight without medical intervention, others require more help from doctors to reach an appropriate weight for them.

Experts are working to understand what medications and treatments are most effective at helping people lose weight. One area of interest has to do with the differences between types of fat.

Wendy Lord noted the key differences between white fat and brown fat:

“Brown fat and white fat are made of different cells. White fat is made of big droplets of lipids or fatty acids. Cells in brown fat are packed with mitochondria. Mitochondria are rich in iron, which gives brown fat its color. They’re the heart of your cells. They take in nutrients like sugar and white fat and break them down to make energy.”

Brown fat vs. white fat

“Brown fat stores more energy in a smaller space than white fat does. White fat sits on our waist, hips, and thighs and stores energy, releasing fatty acids when fuel is required. Eating excessively over a prolonged period causes white fat cells to swell, resulting in obesity.”
— Wendy Lord

Researchers in this current study were looking for a way to help convert white adipose tissue into brown adipose tissue. To do this, they started looking at various therapeutics that could help promote this process.

Because they wanted their research to eventually transfer over to use with people, they focused on medications that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had already approved. Finding the proper medication to focus on involved an intense and specific screening process. Their research utilized cell cultures and several different testing methods.

T​hey found that the FDA-approved medication, zafirlukast, was effective at converting white adipose tissue into brown adipose tissue. However, researchers noted that zafirlukast is actually toxic to people at higher doses, making the use of the drug itself dangerous.

Digging deeper, they discovered a unique metabolite called myristoylglycine was produced when zafirlukast converted white adipose cells to brown adipose cells.

Upon further testing, they found that the molecule myristoylglycine could do the same work as zafirlukast on its own but without being toxic to cells.

This discovery could lead to a new way to treat obesity and reduce people’s risk for a variety of problems. Non-study author Dr. Sameer Murali, obesity medicine specialist at UTHealth Houston and Memorial Hermann, noted to MNT:

“Myristoylglycine represents a potential treatment that would essentially function as a ‘fat burner,’ converting white adipose cells from fat storage facilities to fat-burning brite adipose cells.”

“If this discovery is able to produce a treatment that safely converts white adipose tissue into brite adipose tissue, that would represent a fundamental shift in our current treatment paradigm. Not only would it represent a major opportunity to treat obesity, but it would also have the potential to positively impact the greater than 200 conditions associated with obesity.”
— Dr. Sameer Murali

The study did have some limitations. For example, it only utilized cell cultures, so extensive research is still needed before it is known if the findings have any potential application in people.

Researchers will need to prove the efficacy and safety of the drug in people and eventually in clinical trials before it is clear if this finding could be of benefit to humans. And if this metabolite is used as a treatment, it may only be appropriate for use with specific people.

D​r. Murali noted several components of further research and considerations. He said that while the study and its findings exhibited “tremendous potential”, more work was needed “to demonstrate the safety of myristoylglycine as a possible treatment.”

“For example, the authors note that existing medications such as rosiglitazone that are known to have the same effect have been shown to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. It is unclear whether or not myristoylglycine would have similar adverse effects on other tissues if it were taken as a medication,” he told MNT.

“Currently, these findings are limited to demonstrating the ‘browning’ of white adipose cells in laboratory conditions. The next step would be demonstrating that this could be safely reproduced in animals before it could be considered as a viable treatment in humans.”
— Dr. Sameer Murali

Overall, this research is an important step toward expanding treatment options to help people reach an appropriate body weight. As research moves forward, it could improve help to improve health outcomes for many.