Contrary to popular belief, our body fat doesn’t just hang around waiting to be metabolised whenever we need an energy boost. In fact, it is an endocrine organ that actively communicates with other body organs and tissues by releasing compounds that regulate energy and metabolism or help other organs respond to insulin and glucose.
If too much body fat builds up, however, this communication process can sometimes go awry. In diabetics, for example, energy intensive organs and tissues such as the brain, skeletal muscles and liver lose their ability to take up and metabolise glucose from the bloodstream.
But now researchers say they’ve hit on a way to switch get fat to ‘talk’ again. By using tiny polymer sponges to soak up excess dietary fat, the group at the University of South Carolina reports they can reinstate the broken-down communication from fat to other organs and tissues.
Obese mice implanted with the polymers saw a 10% gain in body fat after three weeks on a high fat diet - a third of the weight gain seen in untreated mice, according to lead researcher Michael Gower. The calf muscles of the treated mice also had 60% higher levels of a protein known to help shuttle glucose from the bloodstream into muscle cells and lower blood sugar levels, he reported.
As an alternative to surgical implantation, Gower explained that the micro-size sponges could potentially be delivered subcutaneously to people via microneedle patches – similar to those already used in drug delivery. However, more work is still needed to determine where exactly to implant them and how many would be needed.
The team is now trying to pinpoint why the poly(lactide-co-glycolide) or PLG sponges reduce fat and lower blood glucose levels, so they can tune the approach to make it more effective. They are also interested in using the polymer as a drug delivery vehicle, by encapsulating the sponges with resveratrol, an anti-ageing ingredient in red wine that causes the same effects as exercise by releasing signals to fat cells called adipocytes.
Together with other lifestyle changes, the implants could be particularly beneficial for prediabetics and those with hyperglycaemia, Gower, believes.