Researchers have developed a new medicated skin patch that turns energy-storing white fat into energy-burning brown fat and raises the body’s overall metabolism. The paper, published in American Chemical Society, describes how the patch could be used to burn off fat and treat metabolic disorders like obesity and diabetes.
Humans have two types of fat. White fat stores excess energy in large triglyceride droplets. Brown fat has smaller droplets and a high number of mitochondria that burn fat to produce heat. Newborns have a relative abundance of brown fat, which protects against exposure to cold temperatures. But by adulthood, most brown fat is lost.
For years, researchers have been searching for therapies to change an adult’s white fat into brown fat – a process called browning that can happen naturally when the body is exposed to cold temperatures – as a treatment for obesity and diabetes.
“There are several clinically available drugs that promote browning, but all must be given as pills or injections,” said study co-leader Li Qiang, PhD, assistant professor of pathology and cell biology at Columbia. “This exposes the whole body to the drugs, which can lead to side effects such as stomach upset, weight gain, and bone fractures.” This new skin patch appears to avoid these complications by delivering the drugs directly to fat tissue.
The patch, so far only tested in mice.
During experiments, the drugs were first encased in nanoparticles, each roughly 250 nanometers in diameter – too small to be seen by the naked eye. (In comparison, a human hair is about 100,000 nm wide.) The nanoparticles are then loaded into a centimeter-square skin patch containing dozens of tiny needles. When applied to skin, the needles painlessly pierce the skin and gradually release the drug from nanoparticles into underlying tissue.
“We designed the nanoparticles to effectively hold the drug and then gradually collapse, releasing it into nearby tissue in a sustained way instead of spreading the drug throughout the body quickly,” said patch designer and study co-leader Zhen Gu, PhD, associate professor in the joint UNC-NC State Department of Biomedical Engineering.
The new treatment approach was tested in obese mice by loading the nanoparticles with one of two compounds known to promote browning: rosiglitazone (Avandia) or beta-adrenergic receptor agonist, which works well in mice but not in humans.
The researchers used two patches for each mouse. One patch was loaded with drug-containing nanoparticles, and the other patch held no drugs. They placed the patches on opposite sides of the lower abdomen. New patches were applied every three days for a total of four weeks. Control mice were given two empty patches.
Mice treated with either of the two drugs had a 20 percent reduction in fat on the treated side compared to the untreated side. They also had significantly lower fasting blood glucose levels than untreated mice.
Tests in normal, lean mice revealed that treatment with either of the two drugs increased the animals’ oxygen consumption – a measure of overall metabolic activity – by about 20 percent compared to untreated controls.
Genetic analyses revealed that the treated side contained more genes associated with brown fat than on the untreated side, suggesting that the observed metabolic changes and fat reduction were due to an increase in browning in the treated mice.
“Many people will no doubt be excited to learn that we may be able to offer a noninvasive alternative to liposuction for reducing love handles,” says Dr. Qiang. “What’s much more important is that our patch may provide a safe and effective means of treating obesity and related metabolic disorders such as diabetes.”
The researchers are currently studying which drugs, or combination of drugs, work best to promote localized browning and increase overall metabolism. The patch has not been approved to be tested in humans.