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Turning bad fat into good in the fight against obesity and diabetes

Understanding the difference between good fat versus bad is critical in the attemp to counteract a growing global health crisis — an obesity epidemic that is escalating risks for a wide range of illnesses.

Brian Gillette, a scientist at the NYU Winthrop

Brian Gillette, a scientist at the NYU Winthrop Research Institute, is seen Tuesday in Manhattan. He has developed a method to transform so-called "bad fat" into "good fat," which he says can lead to weight loss and control of Type 2 diabetes. Photo Credit: Desiree Halpern

The fat that forms beer bellies and middle-age spread — so-called “bad fat” — can be transformed in a lab into energy-consuming “good fat,” and, according to a Long Island medical scientist, that could be good news in the fight against obesity and diabetes.

Using good fat as a way to fight bad fat is the brainchild of Brian Gillette, a medical investigator at the NYU Winthrop Research Intitute in Mineola, who is studying white adipose tissue — bad fat — and brown adipose tissue, the good.

“Brown fat is one of the most metabolically active tissues in the body and may be a therapy for obesity and [Type 2] diabetes,” Gillette said Tuesday.

In a proof-of-principle study, Gillette and his colleagues report in the current issue of the journal Scientific Reports that human white fat cells can be converted into brown fat when exposed in the laboratory to a cocktail of nutrients and maintained for several weeks in a device known as a bioreactor, where biological processes are carried out. He proposes transplanting the converted tissue into the obese to trigger weight loss.

He and his team have already confirmed that white fat can be removed from lab mice, then engineered into brown fat. The transformed tissue when returned to the animals by way of a tissue graft, remained viable for eight weeks, Gillette said.

Even though his research so far has focused on petri dishes and small animals, Gillette hopes ultimately to move from the laboratory to a clinical trial.

“It’s still probably a couple of years from now,” Gillette said of human testing. “We are seriously pursuing this and translating this work.”

Gillette is conducting much of his research with bioengineers Mayur Saxena and Luis Santos, with whom he has co-founded a startup called Ardent Cell Technologies. Their startup is housed at Harlem Biospace, a community laboratory.

Understanding the difference between good fat versus bad is critical, the team contends, because white adipose tissue is at the core of a growing global health crisis — an obesity epidemic that is escalating risks for a wide range of illnesses.

Bad fat collects everywhere — in the buttocks, the belly, the face, arms and legs. Worse, it can damage vital organs and additionally puts people at risk for sleep apnea, heart attack, stroke, hypertension, Type 2 diabetes and several forms of cancer.

Brown adipose tissue, by contrast, is chock full of mitochondria — tiny bean-shaped constituents in cells that produce energy. Gillette said volumes of research over the years have shown brown fat to be a major calorie burner.

Brown fat also grows strategically in parts of the body where energy is needed, such as in the nape of the neck and in the shoulder region, providing protection for the brain and heart.

“It is activated by cold temperatures,” Gillette said, triggered in adults through shivering thermogenesis — the act of producing body heat.

For years it was thought that only babies had substantial brown fat, which largely was lost as they grew bigger and stronger. However, in 2009 a report in the New England Journal of Medicine revealed that leaner adults had more brown fat and far less white fat than their overweight and obese counterparts.

Gillette contends that if brown fat can be grafted into the obese to induce weight loss, people would have a safer method of shedding pounds.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a safety alert last week for implanted weight-loss balloons. The devices are inserted in peoples’ stomachs to aid weight loss. The FDA reported five additional deaths last week, bringing the total to 12 since 2016.

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