NYU Dentistry Receives Mathers Foundation Grant to Investigate the Role of Brown Fat in Fighting Obesity and Other Diseases

Findings are expected to advance promising studies that could form the basis for new therapeutic strategies to prevent and treat obesity and related metabolic diseases.

NYU Dentistry has been awarded a three-year grant in the amount of $450,000 by the Mathers Foundation for research to investigate how activating brown adipose tissue, also known as brown fat, can have major beneficial effects on human health, including in the fight against obesity and related metabolic diseases.

Obesity is a serious and growing health problem worldwide. Obesity increases the risk of other diseases, including diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and high blood pressure. Changes in lifestyle habits such as diet and exercise have some benefits, but most people on diet and/or exercise programs do not maintain long-term weight loss. Accordingly, finding ways to prevent or treat obesity is an urgent need for the health care and research communities.

The research project, “Regulation of brown adipose thermogenesis through cold-responsive progenitors,” is led by Dr. Farnaz Shamsi, an assistant professor of molecular pathobiology at NYU Dentistry. Brown fat is a tissue mainly responsible for keeping the body warm in cold. Cold exposure turns on brown fat which burns calories and lowers blood sugar and fat. Therefore, brown fat can prevent obesity by burning excess calories in the body. Decreasing blood sugar and fat by activating brown fat also has anti-diabetes and lipid-lowering effects and reduces the risk for diabetes. But while cold temperatures can increase brown fat activity, it is uncomfortable for most people and cannot be used to prevent and treat obesity. Understanding how cold activates brown fat therefore can help find sustainable ways to make use of the brown fat activity to protect against obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases.

The major challenge in targeting brown fat as an anti-obesity therapy is the limited amount of brown fat in most adult humans. However, Dr. Shamsi and her team recently discovered a new source for increasing the number of brown fat cells. By using a series of high-resolution approaches, they identified a previously unknown population of cold-responsive thermogenic adipocyte progenitors. Exposure to cold stimulates these progenitors to generate highly thermogenic fat cells. These findings established a new paradigm for activating adipose thermogenesis in cold. However, how these newly identified cells sense and respond to cold is unknown. Dr. Shamsi and her team plan to use this unique and innovative experimental framework to delineate how they can harness the potential of these cells to enhance brown fat activity.

“The concept that the amount of brown fat can be increased by stimulating these non-conventional brown fat progenitors is very appealing. Studying the physiological adaptation to extreme environmental stressors provides ample opportunities for discovering what is often missed by using the more conventional models. The Mathers Foundation support will allow us to apply a panel of innovative approaches to this unique concept and construct an integrative view of pathways that control cold adaptation and dissect the mechanisms that control brown fat thermogenesis,” says Dr. Shamsi.

“The resulting experimental and computational frameworks will generate a path forward for our team and others to address many critical knowledge gaps in our understanding of how brown fat is developed and activated. These studies are expected to break several traditional barriers to obesity and metabolism research and are extremely relevant for developing new therapeutic strategies to prevent and treat obesity and its cardiometabolic sequelae,” adds Dr. Shamsi.

About NYU College of Dentistry
Founded in 1865, New York University College of Dentistry (NYU Dentistry) is the third oldest and the largest dental school in the US, educating nearly 10 percent of the nation’s dentists. NYU Dentistry has a significant global reach with a highly diverse student body. Visit dental.nyu.edu for more.

About the G. Harold and Leila Y. Mathers Charitable Foundation

Since its inception in 1982, the G. Harold and Leila Y. Mathers Foundation has granted in excess of $350M. For many years the Foundation has enjoyed special recognition in the research community in supporting “basic” scientific research, realizing that true transformative breakthroughs usually occur after a thorough understanding of the fundamental mechanisms underlying natural phenomena. With the advent of newer investigative methodologies, technology, and tools, the Foundation now embraces innovative translational research proposals. Visit http://www.mathersfoundation.org/index.php/about/ for more.