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BRITE future for stem cells in Type 2

Project summary

Developmental origins of brown and white adipose tissue: implications for Type 2 diabetes

With a new grant from Diabetes UK, Professor Kevin Docherty at the University of Aberdeen will study pathways involved in the development of different kinds of body fat tissue from human embryonic stem cells.

Background to research

Obesity is a major challenge to the health of an ageing population and is a key modifiable risk factor for Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some forms of cancer. Obesity results from the excess storage of energy as fat – particularly in the form of white adipose tissue (WAT). However, there is another type of fat called brown adipose tissue (BAT), which disperses energy in the form of heat and helps to break down carbohydrate and WAT. Small mammals rely on BAT to survive cold weather, while larger mammals, such as humans, have deposits of BAT during infancy but lose them as they age. Advanced imaging techniques have recently shown that BAT and WAT are often mixed together in adult humans. This ‘brown in white’ (BRITE) adipose tissue has different characteristics to the BAT present in infancy. Studies in humans and animals have shown that an increase in BAT leads to improvements in blood glucose control and reduces rates of diabetes. Moreover, implanting BRITE into rodents with diabetes has a beneficial effect on blood glucose control. These and other studies suggest that changing WAT into BRITE might benefit obese adults with Type 2 diabetes. Recent studies have been able to produce functional BAT from stem cells (cells that have the potential to develop into many other cell types). To develop new therapies in this area, it is first necessary to understand the pathways that lead to formation of these different tissue types.

Research aims

With a new grant from Diabetes UK, Professor Kevin Docherty at the University of Aberdeen will study pathways involved in the development of WAT, BAT and BRITE cells from human embryonic stem cells. His team will also study the genetic profile and metabolic function of these different cell types in the lab and determine their impact on blood glucose control in mice. In particular, the researchers aim to find out if BRITE develops directly from WAT or if, like WAT, BRITE develops from cells that also give rise to bone marrow and blood cells (unlike BAT which develops from cells that also give rise to muscle).

Potential benefit to people with diabetes

Findings from this research could influence the development of future treatments aimed at increasing the amount of BRITE in obese people with Type 2 diabetes in order to improve their blood glucose control.

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