Bad fat can be made to turn over a new leaf and combat obesity by blocking a specific protein, scientists have discovered.
Most fat in the body is unhealthy “white” tissue deposited around the waist, hips and thighs that hoards calories, leading to excess weight.
But smaller amounts of energy-hungry “brown” fat are also found around the neck and shoulders. Brown fat generates heat by burning up excess calories.
Now scientists have found a way to transform white fat into “beige” fat – a healthier halfway stage also capable of reducing weight gain.
Dr Irfan Lodhi, from Washington University School of Medicine in the US, said: “Our goal is to find a way to treat or prevent obesity.
“Our research suggests that by targeting a protein in white fat, we can convert bad fat into a type of fat that fights obesity.”
Beige fat was discovered in adults in 2015 and shown to function in a similar way to brown fat.
Working with mice, Dr Lodhi’s team found that blocking a protein called PexRAP caused white fat in the animals to be converted to beige fat that burned calories.
The discovery raises the prospect of more effective treatments for obesity and diabetes.
The next step will be to find a safe way of blocking PexRAP in white fat cells in humans.
Dr Lodhi said: “The challenge will be finding safe ways to do that without causing a person to overheat or develop a fever, but drug developers now have a good target.”
The study is reported in the journal Cell Reports.