Brown fat stem cells, once considered so superfluous that they were often discarded during surgery, could actually help fight obesity, diabetes and heart disease, according to Dr Amit N Patel.
Last year, Dr Patel created history by performing an
unprecedented heart procedure using the new technique
of retrograde gene therapy (India Abroad, December 6,
Dr Patel, director of Clinical Regenerative Medicine and
Tissue Engineering and associate professor in the Division
of Cardiothoracic Surgery at the University of Utah School
of Medicine, has found brown fat stem cells — stem cells
are young cells that can mature into a variety of other cells
— that can be extracted from the patient, grown externally and successfully tested for their ability to reduce glucose and body weight in mice.
“When we do open-heart surgery, we normally throw
this tissue away,” Dr Patel told India Abroad.
But brown fat cells (which are not all that brown) differ
from the beige (though called white) variety that is associated with obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
“Just by looking at it you cannot tell which one is brown
or white. ( The former is) a little bit darker but (during)
surgery it looks pretty similar,” Dr Patel said, clarifying
that the differences are starker under the microscope.
While abundant in the newborn body, during develop-
ment brown fat cells retreat to a few discrete locations —
in the neck, above the collar bones, in the chest, next to
vertebrae, or above the kidney. Dr Patel used stem cells
that his team had discovered earlier, in this case from
colonies in the chest.
“We are always looking for a
different stem cell in the body
that may have an impact on
heart and vascular disease and
by chance we found (this stem
cell population). This was so
unique,” he said.
Dr Patel and his team of
eight has been researching
brown fat cells since 2011.
In his paper, he said that
while the potential use of
brown fat cells as therapeutic
agents has been often raised,
they knew of no other
researcher who had actually
Explaining what made his
research unique, he pointed
out that, for one, his team was
the first to identify brown fat
stem cells in adult patients.
And now the team had tested
these stem cells grow up into working brown fat cells and
actually work — at least in mice.
Dr Patel said his team’s work suggested there is potential to increase brown fat in patients.
“If you can do that, then you will be able to treat one of
the biggest problems in the country, which is obesity and
cholesterol,” he said, adding sugar to the list later.
“Brown fat is the good fat and white fat is the bad one,”
The stem cells his team collected came from 54 adult
patients between the ages of 28 and 84; 44 of them were
male, and 10 were female.
Dr Patel’s research is perhaps rendered more interesting
because the mice treated with the brown fat cells had
been fed a high fat and sugar diet and yet showed healthi-
er levels than controls after
being treated. To ensure that the
immune system did not destroy
the foreign cells, the mice chosen
lacked an effective immune sys-
“We want to grow more brown
fat or convert white fat into
brown fat, though a lot of drug
discovery needs to occur,” Dr
As his report pointed out, obesity is a worldwide epidemic with
serious health consequences. In
the United States, 35.7 percent
of adults and 16.9 percent of
children and adolescents are
obese, which is a risk factor for
insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease.
In the US and other western
countries, obesity drives a paral-
lel epidemic of type 2 diabetes.
Dr Patel — who has also been
associated with Gurgaon, India-
based Medanta Heart Institute
— pointed out that this research
was particularly good news for
people of Indian origin, who tend to be more susceptible
to obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
“It has been discovered that Asians has very little brown
fat,” he said, adding that his team’s discovery could help
work on developing a drug to address the issue.
Dr Patel exuded some cautious optimism, but warned
that a whole class of drug still needs to be developed, a
process that could take up to 10 years.
Dr Jayakrishna Ambati, whose research has led to new discoveries related to eyesight, is one of the 11
recipients of the 2014 Harrington Scholar-Innovator Awards, which are presented by
the Harrington Discovery Institute at
University Hospitals Case Medical Center
The award will support development of
novel therapeutics to treat age-related macular degeneration, a major cause of blindness among the elderly, based on his laboratory’s discoveries that identified pathways responsible for advanced, dry AMD.
The discoveries were published in the journals Nature and Cell.
Dr Ambati is professor and vice chair in
the Department of Ophthalmology and
Visual Sciences and professor in the
Department of Physiology at the University
of Kentucky College of Medicine.
The awards, chosen from more than 500
applicants at more than 100 institutions,
will support drug discovery efforts of great
promise at renowned institutions across
The Harrington Discovery Institute is a
national initiative dedicated to physician-
scientists, enabling them to transform
breakthrough insights into novel medi-
cines, a statement from the institute said.
Dr Ambati was named a fellow of the
American Association for the Advance-
ment of Science two years ago for his con-
tributions to AMD and ocular angiogene-
sis; particularly for revealing surprising
functions of chemokines, noncoding
RNAs, and toll-like receptors in their
“Some of our most important research
findings,” he had told India Abroad earlier,
“revolve around the discovery that the
innate immune system plays a pivotal role
in the development of age-related macular
degeneration, a disease that affects 30 to 50
million people across the world.”
Eye research pioneer
Jayakrishna Ambati wins
Harrington Scholar-Innovator Award
Once considered waste,
brown fat stem cells could
be heart saviors
Dr Jayakrishna Ambati