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U of O professor and team of researchers publish most recent findings

Jesse Mellott | Fulcrum Staff

Illustration by Tina Wallace

A recent publication by medical researchers has indicated a potential way to help fight obesity. It’s been discovered that muscle stem cells can be turned into brown fat, which helps fight off the kind of fat cells that lead to obesity. Brown fat is a tissue that is used to generate heat in the body in order to resist cold temperatures.

Dr. Michael Rudnicki is one of the authors of a recent article in the journal Cell Metabolism that shows a link between stem cells and brown fat.

Rudnicki is a Canada Research Chair in molecular genetics and professor in the University of Ottawa’s faculty of medicine. He is also the director of the Regenerative Medicine Program and Sprott Centre for Stem Cell Research at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute. He explained that there are a number of reasons why this discovery is important in the fight against obesity.

“This is the first demonstration that in fact muscle stem cells are multi-potential—that is, they give rise both to muscle, which was known, and to brown fat,” said Rudnicki. “Secondly, we have defined the molecular mechanism that controls the decision-making of the stem cell, whether it becomes muscle or brown fat. Third, we have shown that a rather modest intervention leads to long-lasting whole-body metabolic effects.”

Rudnicki also hopes this discovery will provide another treatment option for patients.

“This I think would represent an interesting potential to explore further as a possible therapeutic choice,” Rudnicki explained.

Alessandra Pasut, one of the authors of the article and a PhD student in cellular and molecular medicine at the U of O, helped Rudnicki conduct research for the study. She explained the process that led to the discovery.

“We obviously needed to isolate the stem cells from the tissue where they belong and put them in vitro in order to actually perform experiments,” said Pasut. “In vivo, it can turn muscles into brown fat—this results in a better energy expenditure and a better metabolic rate.”

Rudnicki’s previous work in the field of stem cell research in 2007 helped prove the existence of adult skeletal muscle stem cells. It was this initial research that played an integral role in allowing for his team’s recent discovery.