Prof looks to stem cells to assist weight loss, control diabetes

What if losing weight or controlling diabetes could be done with a simple procedure using a person’s own stem cells? That is what York kinesiology Professor Anthony Scimè is working to discover thanks to a $75,000 Drug Discovery Grant recently awarded by the Stem Cell Network (SCN).

Scimè, in collaboration with the Laboratory for High-Throughput Screening Programs at the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute at Mount AnthonyScimeSinai Hospital, will lead the project to test 15,000 known and uncharacterized compounds from pharmaceutical companies, searching for one that will reduce the amount of a particular protein – p107 – in stem cells.

Anthony Scimè

When p107 is genetically deleted, stem cells will not turn into white fat cells, which are the ones that make people gain weight. Instead, they will turn into brown fat cells present in brown adipose tissue (BAT).

That may not seem significant, but it is. “White fat tissue stores fat making us gain weight, while brown adipose tissue metabolizes carbs and fatty acids,” says Scimè of the School of Kinesiology & Health Science in the Faculty of Health, who also teaches in the graduate program in the Department of Biology. Brown fat generates heat by consuming glucose and fats, which burns calories.

“A tremendous source of adult stem cells happens to be our own white fat depots that contain the white fat cells,” says Scimè. Finding a compound that will allow them to create brown fat cells could therefore make a huge difference in the lives of people with obesity or Type II diabetes.

“It has been shown that just a few grams of active BAT would be sufficient to burn off an amount equivalent to about four kilograms of fat per year,” says Scimè. “Worldwide obesity and Type II diabetes represent significant public health concerns. One approach to minimize weight gain and control glucose metabolism in diabetes would be to increase the amount of BAT within the body.”

As it stands, obese people have little to no brown fat, although the reasons for that are unclear. Could having more brown fat, instead of white fat, help people to lose weight? That’s what Scimè hopes to find out.

He is searching for the right compound, one that will decrease p107, so he can begin treating human stem cells with it to see if it has the desired effect of creating brown fat cells.

“We envision that the discovery of a molecule or molecules to trigger brown fat cell formation will lead to effective treatment of obesity and Type II diabetes,” he says.

SCN is a Network of Centres of Excellence and a catalyst for Canadian research that translates stem cell research into new therapies, commercial products and public policy.

By Sandra McLean, YFile deputy editor