New drugs could burn off excess fat and lead to obesity treatments to control diabetes

There’s a race going on to find treatments for obesity and ­related diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Researchers at the University of East Anglia and the University of ­Cambridge are at the head of it.

We have two kinds of fat in the body, brown, or “good” fat because it burns calories, and white which stores ­calories. Too much white fat leads to obesity.

The UK universities collaborated with the University of Pennsylvania and Free University of Brussels to discover the structure of a protein known as Uncoupling Protein 1 (UCP1), which bumps up the amount of calories brown fat burns off.

The team say their findings will help develop drugs to burn off excess calories from fat and sugar. And this could one day combat obesity and related diseases, such as diabetes.

Dr Paul Crichton, from Norwich Medical School, said: “As well as the conventional white fat that we are all familiar with, we can also develop brown fat.

“We know that mammals switch on UCP1 activity in brown fat tissue to protect against the cold and to maintain body temperature – especially in newborns that cannot yet shiver to keep warm.” As a potential way to treat obesity, researchers have been working out how to increase brown fat and activate UCP1 medically.

To fight metabolic disease, research has been focusing on how to turn on brown fat and how to convert white fat into brown fat so the body burns more calories.

Lead researcher Professor Edmund Kunji from Cambridge University, said: “Our paper reveals, for the first time, the structure of UCP1 in atomic detail, and how its activity in brown fat cells is inhibited by a key regulatory molecule.”

Using an electron microscope, the team were able to view UCP1 down to individual atoms.

“This is an exciting development that follows more than four decades of research into what UCP1 looks like and how it works,” said Vera ­Moiseenkova-Bell, professor of ­Pharmacology at the University of ­Pennsylvania and faculty director of the Beckman Centre for Cryo-Electron Microscopy.

The research will allow scientists to activate molecules that bind to UCP1 to switch the protein on, leading to the burning of fat and removal of glucose from the blood which, of course, will help control diabetes.

“This is a significant breakthrough in this field,” Prof Kunji added.

Given how many people have diabetes, that’s an understatement.