Harvard Predicts Fat Burning Stem Cell Pill To Replace Exercise

Moisan et al, brown fat pathways.
Moisan et al, brown fat pathways.

A hot topic in biomedical sciences is converting white “bad” fat into brown “good” fat.

The latter type of adipose is viewed more positively because it seems to be associated with a relatively metabolically more active, leaner state.

Could we somehow convert white adipose to brown adipose and in so doing have a beneficial effect on health?

Researchers from the Harvard Stem Cell Institute just came out with some new research on potential stem cell-related approaches to the much-vaunted conversion of white-to-brown fat.

The paper was posted yesterday in the excellent journal Nature Cell Biology from a team led by Dr. Chad Cowan and is entitled: White-to-brown metabolic conversion of human adipocytes by JAK inhibition.

The authors conducted an elegant screen (see Figure 1a above) to look for molecules that could shift the fate of adipose tissue produced from stem cells toward brown adipose. They found so-called JAK kinase inhibitors could do the trick in human cultured cells.

This is heady stuff.

The Harvard Gazette talks about it in a piece entitled “A Pill to Shed Fat?”:

Cowan’s group has found two small molecules that convert fat stem cells, which normally would produce white fat, into brown-like fat cells. These brown-like fat cells burn excess energy and thereby reduce the size and numbers of white fat cells.

I find this paper very exciting, but I wonder if it is a bit too exciting if you know what I mean. For example, take a look at this statement that is bouncing around in the mainstream media about this fat finding:

“It’s the first step toward a pill that can replace the treadmill,” said co-author Chad Cowan, associate professor in Harvard’s Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology unit.

A pill coming soon to not just potentially make you healthier by changing your fat, but also to replace exercise?

OK, so that’s a clever, rhyming soundbite with “pill” and “treadmill”, but did it go too far?

8 thoughts on “Harvard Predicts Fat Burning Stem Cell Pill To Replace Exercise”

  1. I thought it was April 1 already!

    Replace white fat (which by the way does actually serve several essential purposes in the normal state) with brown reactive-oxygen generating machines?

    May be interesting as a therapy for some diseases states but as a lifestyle choice I see a massive inflammatory storm followed by cardiac arrest. And I can get that with a life of steak and chips anyway.

  2. The white fat to brown fat transform sounds like a great new way to count calories… Perhaps I’ll finally be able to find my abs!!!

    But I share your concern about “going too far”.

    This sort of calorie-counting reminds me a little of Hardin’s critique of the narrow way that economists do their accounting: http://www.garretthardinsociety.org/docs/hardin_living_within_limits_ch_8.pdf

    Consider the entire human body and its environment:
    In one corner we have; unnatural lifestyles, advertising, GMO and engineering of manufactured foods that are perfectly designed to make you fat.
    In the other corner; the “health” industry promising yet another thin-patch…

    There is an over-reliance on “scientific and technological fixes” for “manufactured problems”.

  3. Michael Finfer, MD

    I can see this as an adjunct to proper diet and exercise, but as a replacement? It will never happen. There are other beneficial effects of exercise that will never be provided by a drug.

    Also, this is just an in vitro pilot study. We know nothing about potential toxicities yet.

    This sort of hype almost never works out. Gleevec is the one exception that I can think of off the top of my head.

  4. Well, aside from the fact that I’m very skeptical about this to begin with… even if this pill worked (and that’s a HUGE if), it couldn’t replace all of the other benefits of exercise. Thin people who don’t exercise do not live any longer than overweight people who DO exercise (Steven Blair’s research on this question goes back over twenty years.) So statements like the one that Chad Cowan made are actually kind of irresponsible. People don’t need anything else encouraging them to stay seating on the couch popping diet pills.

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