Discovery of new fat cell could explain why people gain weight after they stop smoking

This research could lead to improved treatments for obesity

Sabrina Barr
Monday 21 May 2018 16:31 BST
(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

The discovery of a new fat cell could explain the connection between smoking cessation and weight gain and lead to improved treatments for obesity as a result.

In a recent study conducted by the University of Michigan Life Sciences Institute, a team of researchers explored the function of a new type of fat cell: the thermogenic or “beige” fat cell.

Jun Wu, research assistant professor at LSI and senior author of the study, had formerly come across beige fat cells in previous research.

Beige fat cells burn energy when activated through thermogenesis, which is when heat is produced in the body.

In order to assess how beige fat cells function, Ms Wu and her team investigated beige fat that had been activated.

Their findings, published in the journal Nature Medicine, highlighted a molecule present in the beige fat of mice and humans called CHRNA2 (cholinergic receptor nicotinic alpha 2), a protein that plays a role in thermogenesis.

No CHRNA2 was detected in the white fat of the mice and humans, the function of which is to store energy as opposed to burn it.

CHRNA2 is also known for regulating the reliance of nicotine in the brain.

Therefore, these findings could shine a light on why individuals who quit smoking often gain weight, as the nicotine in cigarettes has been proven to suppress the appetites of smokers.

Ms Wu stressed that this research is not intended to encourage people to smoke in order to avoid weight gain, but rather that this discovery could help people suffering from obesity or metabolic issues.

“It is really cool to discover a selective pathway for beige fat, a new cell-type - and even more exciting that this is conserved in humans,” she said.

“Beige fat is very important in regulating whole-body metabolic health.

“Our results in mice show that if you lose even one aspect of this regulation - not the whole cell function, but just one part of its function - you will have a compromised response to metabolic challenges.”

According to Ms Wu, increased understanding of the CHRNA2 signalling pathway could lead to improved treatments for individuals who have gained an unhealthy amount of weight.

“This pathway is important from a basic research standpoint, but it also has relevance for metabolic and human health research,” Ms Wu said.

“The more we can narrow down a precise pathway for activating beige fat, the more likely we are to find an effective therapy for metabolic health that does not carry harmful side effects."

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