Brown adipose tissue – important for generating heat in the body- also secretes signaling factors that activate the fat and carbohydrates metabolism, according to a new paper.

Brown adipose tissue: more than burning calories in the body

Brown adipose tissue (BAT) helps “burning more calories” and making body heat out of fat. According to the new study, this special kind of fat –the motor of thermogenesis- has an endocrine function able to activate the lipid and glucidic metabolism in the body, which has a profile for a future therapeutic target to treat pathologies like obesity.

Laboratory animal models and in vitro cell culture suggest this type of fat could be a future therapeutic target to treat pathologies like obesity.

“Traditionally, brown adipose tissue was just seen as an organ to burn calories, but we have seen it has an endocrine biological role”, said Professor Francesc Villarroya, member of the Institute of Biomedicine of the University of Barcelona (IBUB) and head of the Research Group in Genetics and Molecular Biology of Mitochondrial Proteins and Associated Diseases.

New perspectives in the physiology of brown adipose tissue

This new vision on the brown adipose tissue means a revolution similar to the one from years ago with white adipose tissue (WAT), the most known fat. “Until the eighties –says Villarroya- people believed WAT was a mere fat storage. From the nineties on, after discovering leptin as a hormonal factor released by WAT, other adipokines were found (active factors synthesized by this organ)”. Therefore, WAT is now understood as an endocrine organ and now, with BAT, the same process is going on.

According to the experts, when there is a situation of BAT activation and there is a high oxidation in metabolism products to generate heat, this organ would also send a series of biochemical signals to the entire organism to activate the global oxidizing metabolism. Identifying the released factors –called batokines- is the main challenge of the researchers, apart from discovering how the target organs act, or if there are other secretory tissues, etc.

The most known factors are FGF21 (fibroblast growth factor 21), neuregulin 4 and IL-6, among other compounds that are the focus of an intense research activity. “White adipose tissue, liver, heart, and probably pancreas and brain (counting the regulation points of feelings of hunger and thirst) are some of the target organs of the batokines”, says Villarroya. “We also know that some of the factors released by WAT, such as FGF21, are able to cross the blood-brain barrier and act on brain areas” he said.

From basic research to human physiology

BAT secretory function as an endocrine organ has been studied through laboratory animal models and in vitro cell culture. In studies with animal models, there were improvements in the diabetes course –and even obesity- in mice transferred with small samples of brown adipose tissue. According to the experts, the transferred BAT would release factors that promote glucose consume and sensitivity to insulin (in general, a healthier metabolic profile).

“In human physiology –says Villarroya- it is essential to define if all batokines that are identified in animal models are also present in human BAT and behave the same way. In a future, these batokines could be considered as potential candidates in drug design to treat these diseases. In the case of obese patients with few active BAT –and probably less released batokines- a first therapeutic strategy could be to give them these molecules as drugs”.

However, moving this basic research to the clinical field is a hard challenge, for several reasons but also for the hard availability of samples through human biopsies. For this reason, among other strategies, the team of Dr. Villarroya is developing in vitro human cells of brown adipose humans in population that allow verifying in human physiology the obtained results in mice.

Citation: Brown adipose tissue as a secretory organ. Francesc Villarroya, Rubén Cereijo, Joan Villarroya, Marta Giralt.
Nature Reviews Endocrinology doi:10.1038/nrendo.2016.136, 12 September 2016