Researchers believe they’ve unearthed the mechanism that controls whether fat cells in the body burn or store their energy.
The mechanism at play? The vitamin D receptor, which acts as a toggle switch, telling cells whether they should be brown energy-burning cells, or white energy-storing cells.
When the body metabolizes vitamin D, it turns it into activated vitamin D, which binds to the vitamin D receptor, often telling these receptors to act or not act in a certain way. So vitamin D is key to telling cells whether they should be brown or white, right? Maybe not.
“When we first made this discovery, we were curious about whether the amount of vitamin D that people were taking might be decreasing how much brown fat they had,” said Brian Feldman, MD, PhD, an assistant professor of pediatric endocrinology of Stanford University School of Medicine and lead researcher of this discovery.
“But so far our data show that this activity of the receptor is independent of vitamin D, so people’s ingestion or reserves of vitamin D are unlikely to be affecting this process.”
Still, researchers believe this discovery can help future research and help develop new therapies to manage obesity and diseases like diabetes.
It’s not clear if the vitamin D receptor causes white-fat cells to turn into brown-fat cells, or if the receptor determines white or brown before a cell develops into a fat cell.
The researchers are now working on developing a therapy targeting the vitamin D receptor. They want to see if they can alter the way the vitamin D receptor works, to control the development of brown-fat cells.
Bergeron L. Researchers discover switch for controlling fat cells. http://med.stanford.edu/ism/2013/august/brown-fat.html, 2013.