Obesity is currently a global pandemic and is a major risk factor for type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other metabolic diseases. Obesity is characterized by an increase in adipose mass; however, not all fat is involved in energy storage. Rather, there are two functionally different types of fat: white fat, the primary site of lipid storage, and brown fat, which is specialized in burning energy. Due to brown fat's huge capacity to dissipate energy and its newly identified effects on fat and glucose metabolism, increasing the amount and function of brown fat may not only combat obesity, but may also prevent type 2 diabetes and other metabolic disorders. Our preliminary data have revealed that a small regulatory nucleotide RNA, also named microRNA, can promote the formation of brown fat. The goal of this proposal is to elucidate the mechanisms mediating this effect. Results from the proposed studies will help us to understand how brown fat is formed and may provide a potential therapy for obesity and related diseases such as type 2 diabetes.
What area of diabetes research does your project cover? What role will this particular project play in preventing, treating and/or curing diabetes?
This project is aimed at understanding the regulation of brown fat formation. Recent years have brought recognition to the presence of energy-burning brown adipose tissue in adult humans. Increasing the amount and function of brown fat has become an attractive approach for the prevention and treatment of obesity and its co-morbidities, such as type 2 diabetes. Clearly, fundamental knowledge about how brown fat develops is needed to make such therapies possible. MicroRNAs are small ribonucleic acid (RNA) molecules within living cells. Recently, microRNAs have emerged as important regulators of diverse biological processes and pathologies, and thus have been proposed as new therapeutic approaches for various human diseases. The current project aims to determine how microRNAs regulate brown fat formation and function. If successful, we envision using this technology to make more energy-burning brown fat in obese individuals, which will facilitate weight loss and ameliorate the complications associated with type 2 diabetes.
If a person with diabetes were to ask you how your project will help them in the future, how would you respond?
Obesity is the key risk factor for type 2 diabetes. Proper body weight control is crucial for the prevention and treatment of type 2 diabetes. While lifestyle interventions, such as diet and exercise, still need to be implemented in the general population, new and effective medical therapies are urgently needed for individuals who have limited responses to these life-style programs and current medical treatments. With the recognition that adult humans have brown adipose tissue, and its huge capacity for energy dissipation, as well as the newly identified effects on fatty acid and glucose metabolism, increasing the amount and function of brown fat may not only combat obesity, but may also prevent type 2 diabetes and other metabolic disorders. This would be especially beneficial to individuals with physical limitations in exercising or those who are genetically predisposed to obesity and diabetes.
Why is it important for you, personally, to become involved in diabetes research? What role will this award play in your research efforts?
I have always wanted to help people. Through working at the Joslin Diabetes Center, I have become very aware that there are millions of people around the globe suffering from diabetes, and thus far there is still limited success in terms of prevention and treatment of this disease. Receiving this ADA Award would allow me to investigate a new pathway that may lead to potential therapeutic approaches for weight reduction and improve glucose and fat metabolism. I earnestly hope that this research will aid in conquering diabetes, advancing public health, and improving the quality of lives.
In what direction do you see the future of diabetes research going?
Obesity is occurring at epidemic rates worldwide and represents a major risk factor for diabetes and other metabolic disorders. As we continue to gain insights into the regulation of energy balance, we are uncovering the molecular causes of obesity and diabetes, and ultimately are able to use this gained knowledge to develop effective therapies for prevention and treatment of these diseases. Thus, combined basic and translational research in delineating the regulation of energy balance would be a critical direction in the future diabetes research and will provide hope for the cure of diabetes.