“These discoveries make us more confident about the potential to target brown fat for therapeutic benefit.”
Large-scale studies of brown fat were not possible because this tissue is only visible on PET scans, which are a special type of medical image.
“These scans are expensive, but more importantly, they use radiation,” said Tobias Becher, lead author of the study and former clinician in Cohen’s lab. “We don’t want to expose many healthy people to it.”
Medical scientist Becher has come up with another method. Thousands of people visit the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center each year and undergo PET scans to evaluate their cancer. Becher knew that radiologists would regularly record brown fat detected in these scans so that it would not be mistaken for a tumor.
“We realized that this could be a valuable resource to start by looking at brown fat on a population scale,” says Becher.
In collaboration with Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Heiko Schoder and Andreas Wibmer, researchers reviewed 130,000 PET scans from more than 52,000 patients and found the presence of brown fat in about 10% of individuals.
Many chronic diseases were less common among people with detectable brown fat. Only 4.6 percent had type 2 diabetes, compared to 9.5 percent of those who did not have detectable brown fat. And 18.9 percent had abnormal cholesterol, compared to 22.2 percent of those without brown fat.
Hypertension, congestive heart failure, and coronary artery disease were less likely to occur in patients with detectable brown fat.
Obese people usually have an increased risk of heart and metabolic status. However, researchers have found that among obese people with brown fat, the prevalence of these conditions is similar to that of non-obese people. “They seem to be protected from the harmful effects of white fat,” says Cohen.
More than a power that burns energy
Brown fat cells can burn glucose to burn calories, which can lower blood sugar levels, a major risk factor for developing diabetes.
“We’re investigating that brown adipose tissue not only consumes glucose and burns calories, but is probably actually involved in hormonal signaling to other organs,” says Cohen.
In the study, to further study the biology of brown fat, why some people have more brown fat than others and the activity of brown fat to treat obesity and related conditions. We will look for genetic variants that may explain potential first steps in developing pharmacological methods to stimulate.
“The natural question everyone has is,’What can we do to increase brown fat,’” says Cohen. “We don’t have a good answer to that yet, but it will be an exciting space for scientists to explore in the coming years.”