New target for obesity treatment

25 November 2015        

Person standing on a scale

Researchers we fund have shown how a protein produced by the body reduces a person’s ability to burn fats. New drugs which block this protein could be used as treatment of obesity and other metabolic diseases.

Most fat cells in the body store energy which is released when in demand. However some fat cells, called brown adipocytes, primarily function to generate heat by burning fats, keeping us warm. 

A team of researchers from the University of Cambridge, and Toho University in Japan, has shown that a protein called sLR11 blocks this fat burning process. 

What did the researchers find?

The researchers looked at mice which lack the sLR11 gene. They found that mice gained less weight, compared to normal mice, and were able to burn fats at a faster rate. They showed that the sLR11 protein works by binding to the surface of fat cells. The protein then tells the cells to burn less fat and conserve energy. 

The researchers examined sLR11 in obese patients who underwent gastric surgery. They found that the more overweight the patient, the more the sLR11 protein in their blood.

Why does this research matter?

There is a growing interest in targeting heat-generating cells with drugs in order to treat obesity, diabetes and other associated conditions such as heart disease. This is because targeting these cells offers a method for disposing of excess fat in a relatively safe way. In theory, by reducing sLR11 levels, the volume of fats stored in the body could also decrease.

A number of molecules have already been found which can increase heat generation, but there have been very few molecules found to date that decrease this process and encourage fat storage. For this reason, the sLR11 protein is a promising start to the search for new obesity drug targets.  

Talking about the study, join first author Dr Andrew Whittle said: “Our discovery may help explain why overweight individuals find it incredibly hard to lose weight. Their stored fat is actively fighting against their efforts to burn it off at the molecular level”. Professor Toni Vidal-Puig, who led the team, added: “We have found an important mechanism that could be targeted to help increase people’s ability to burn fat.” 

The future of obesity research

Looking at what the future holds, Jeremy Pearson, our Associate Medical Director, said: “This research could stimulate the development of new drugs that either help reduce obesity, by blocking the action of this protein, or control weight loss by mimicking its action. Based on this discovery, we look forward to the Cambridge team’s future findings. But an effective medicine to treat obesity, which safely manages weight loss is still some way off."

The study was also funded by the Wellcome Trust, the Medical Research Council and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. As part of our new research strategy, we will work closely with other research funders to ensure we make progress to fight heart disease as quickly as possible. 

However, we will only be able to fund this research with the continued support of the public and our loyal supporters. Help us to continue funding crucial research like this.

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