ORLANDO, Fla., February 6, 2012 – It's well known that exercising reduces body weight because it draws on fat stores that muscle can burn as fuel. But a new study at Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute (Sanford-Burnham) suggests that the heart also plays a role in breaking down fat. In their study, published February 6 in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, Sheila Collins, Ph.D. and colleagues detail how hormones released by the heart stimulate fat cell metabolism. These hormones turn on a molecular mechanism similar to what's activated when the body is exposed to cold and burns fat to generate heat. This study adds another dimension to our understanding of how the body regulates fat tissue and may someday lead to new ways to manipulate the process with drugs to reduce weight in obese patients or maintain it in individuals who experience pathological weight loss during chronic heart failure.
"Exercise is always going to raise your blood pressure some, so there's the potential that these heart hormones—called cardiac natriuretic peptides—are being released and contributing to the breakdown of fats," said Collins, professor in the Diabetes and Obesity Research Center at Sanford-Burnham's Lake Nona campus in Orlando and senior author of the study. "Over a period of time, natriuretic peptides could also be leading to an increase in the numbers of brown fat cells, which we know are very important for protection against diet-induced obesity, at least in laboratory experiments."
Brown fat cells, unlike white fat cells typically associated with body fat, not only store fat but also readily convert calories into energy—a process that malfunctions in obesity.
In their study, Collins and her team found that the metabolic effects caused by natriuretic peptides depend largely on the ratio of two different kinds of receptors—message-receiving proteins—on the surface of fat cells. One, called NPRA, is a "signaling" receptor and its presence helps boost brown fat cells and burn white fat. The other, called NPRC, is a "clearance" receptor and seems to prevent natriuretic peptides from activating NPRA, resulting in a greater accumulation of white fat cells.
When exposed to cold in this study, mice had elevated amounts of natriuretic peptides in their circulatory system. They also showed increased levels of the NPRA signaling receptor, relative to the NPRC clearance receptor, on fat cells. As a result, fatty acids were mobilized and the calorie-burning brown fat machinery was turned on in these mice. Exactly what alters the levels of the different types of receptors is still unknown.
"In the next phases of our work, we hope to not only more tightly link the physiology and genetics, but also understand how these receptors are regulated," Collins said.
A progressive understanding of what regulates NPRA and NPRC receptors, and therefore how natriuretic peptides control white fat cell mass, could lead to new therapeutic targets to manage obesity and metabolic disease. For example, blocking the NRPC clearance receptor, or creating agents that favor binding NPRA, could help obese patients lose weight.
More information about how this system works could also give hope to patients suffering from cardiac cachexia, a severe body wasting that can occur in chronic heart failure. High levels of natriuretic peptides are characteristic of heart failure and are used as diagnostic markers of the severity of the disease. One hypothesis is that the high levels of circulating natriuretic peptides seen in cardiac cachexia patients may be leading to abnormally high levels of brown fat production, energy expenditure, and therefore weight loss. In these patients, suppressing the production of the peptides might slow or halt this process. The Collins lab is now gearing up to test this hypothesis in the lab.
This research was funded by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases and The Italian Society of Hypertension. Co-authors include Marica Bordicchia, Sanford-Burnham and University Politecnica delle Marche; Dianxin Liu, Sanford-Burnham, Ez-Zoubir Amri, Université de Nice Sophia-Antipolis; Gerard Ailhaud, Université de Nice Sophia-Antipolis; Paolo Dessi-Fulgheri, University Politecnica delle Marche; Chaoying Zhang, Sanford-Burnham; Nobuyuki Takahashi, Tohoku University Graduate School of Pharmaceutical Sciences and Medicine; Riccardo Sarzani, University Politecnica delle Marche; and Sheila Collins, Sanford-Burnham.
About Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute
Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute is dedicated to discovering the fundamental molecular causes of disease and devising the innovative therapies of tomorrow. The Institute consistently ranks among the top five organizations worldwide for its scientific impact in the fields of biology and biochemistry (defined by citations per publication) and currently ranks third in the nation in NIH funding among all laboratory-based research institutes. Sanford-Burnham is a highly innovative organization, currently ranking second nationally among all organizations in capital efficiency of generating patents, defined by the number of patents issued per grant dollars awarded, according to government statistics.
Sanford-Burnham utilizes a unique, collaborative approach to medical research and has established major research programs in cancer, neurodegeneration, diabetes, and infectious, inflammatory, and childhood diseases. The Institute is especially known for its world-class capabilities in stem cell research and drug discovery technologies. Sanford-Burnham is a U.S.-based, non-profit public benefit corporation, with operations in San Diego (La Jolla), Santa Barbara, and Orlando (Lake Nona). For more information, please visit our website or blog. You can also receive updates by following us on Facebook and Twitter.
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