Scientists out of Flinders University in Australia have found a way to flip the “off” switch on fat storage. Their research could lead to a pill that would provide a reliable means of weight loss for millions of people around the world.
It’s a big claim. But with millions of people worldwide struggling with obesity—and it’s negative effects on our health—researchers are hopeful that drugs targeting a specific gene, RCAN1, could lead to better health and quality of life without people having to make drastic lifestyle changes. Such a drug could move the needle in the fight against type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and other diseases associated with excess weight.
The RCAN1 gene helps the body store fat, but once turned off or blocked, the body turns white fat into brown fat and cranks ups its metabolism. “It means the body would store less fat without the need for a person to reduce food consumption or exercise more,” Professor Damien Keating, one of the lead researchers, reported.
For their experiment, the research team removed the RCAN1 gene in a test group of mice and then fed the mice a high-fat diet for a prolonged period. The mice didn’t gain weight even after gorging themselves. The mice were tested after periods of two to six months, and in every case removing the RCAN1 gene caused improvements in health.
The RCAN1 gene suppresses thermogenesis (calorie burning) both by encouraging calories to be stored as white fat (the kind that doesn’t burn calories) and by suppressing calorie burn in the muscles. In food-scarce environments, RCAN1 helped humans store as much fuel as possible for later use. But in environments where calories are easy to come by, the gene contributes to obesity. Expression of RCAN1 is strongly related to metabolic syndrome.
When RCAN1 is blocked, the body can more readily turn white fat into brown fat. White fat stores energy, insulates organs, and produces hormones. It’s also the kind that’s associated with obesity. Brown fat, which looks darker because of the iron and blood vessels the cells contain, burns calories and generates heat. It’s typically known as “good” fat and can be generated by exercising.
If blocking RCAN1 in humans transforms white fat into brown fat, it could prove a powerful treatment method for obesity. “In light of our results, the drugs we are developing to target RCAN1 would burn more calories while people are resting,” Professor Keating said.
While any potential treatments wouldn’t replace the need for healthy eating and exercise, which have a long list of health benefits apart from weight control, many people have trouble losing weight despite eating right and exercising. A drug that could give them an advantage could make a global difference in the fight against obesity and metabolic diseases.
Katie Taylor started writing in 5th grade and hasn't stopped since. Her favorite place to pen a phrase is in front of her fireplace with a cup of tea, but she's been known to write in parking lots on the backs of old receipts if necessary. She and her husband live cozily in the Pacific Northwest enjoying rainy days and Netflix.