Researchers discovered they could feed mice a high-fat diet without making them obese by activating a pathway in fat cells. The process prevents fat cells from growing larger—which can lead to weight gain.
“This could lead us to a new therapeutic target for treating obesity,” says Fanxin Long, a professor of orthopedic surgery at Washington University in St. Louis and senior investigator of the study in eLife.
“What’s particularly important is that the animals in our study ate a high-fat diet but didn’t gain weight, and in people, too much fat in the diet is a common cause of obesity.”
Hear Fanxin Long discuss the findings:
The study focused on the so-called Hedgehog protein pathway that is active in many tissues in the body. Researchers engineered mice with genes that activated the Hedgehog pathway in fat cells when they ate a high-fat diet.
“…animals with the active Hedgehog pathway not only were leaner, they also had lower blood-glucose levels and were more sensitive to insulin.”
After eight weeks of eating the high-fat diet, control animals whose Hedgehog pathways had not been activated became obese. But the mice that had been engineered with genes to activate the pathway didn’t gain any more weight than did control animals that consumed normal diets.
The Hedgehog pathway prevented obesity by inhibiting the size of the fat cells, Long says.
“Fat gain is due mainly to increased fat cell size. Each fat cell grows bigger so that it can hold larger fat droplets. We gain weight mainly because fat cells get bigger, as opposed to having more fat cells.”
By stimulating Hedgehog and related proteins in fat cells, the animals’ fat cells were kept from collecting and storing fat droplets.
“More importantly, when we did metabolic studies, we found that the animals with the active Hedgehog pathway not only were leaner, they also had lower blood-glucose levels and were more sensitive to insulin,” Long says.
More than one-third of the adult population in the United States is obese, and the estimated annual medical costs for obesity exceed $147 billion. People with obesity have an increased risk for stroke, heart attack, diabetes and cancer.
But, translating the findings to humans could be tricky. Any drugs that activate the Hedgehog pathway would need to be carefully targeted to avoid potential side effects.
Certain cancers have been linked to too much Hedgehog activity, for example. But because the pathway is believed to work in similar ways in humans and mice, it might be possible to target the pathway to the fat tissue as a treatment for obesity, he says.
“If we can come up with strategies to carefully target fat cells, then I think activating this pathway could be effective in the fight against obesity.”
The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases and the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases of the National Institutes of Health supported the work.