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September 15, 2017

Skin patch has potential to melt away 'love handles'

In tests on obese mice, the therapy reduced fat by 20 percent. Human tests are planned.

A medicated skin patch may someday be able to eliminate "love handles" and even treat obesity and diabetes, according to researchers.

The patch can turn "energy-storing white fat into energy-burning brown fat locally" while increasing overall metabolism in the body, according to researchers at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) and the University of North Carolina.

The findings, from experiments in mice, were published online Friday in ACS Nano.

Humans have two types of fat: white fat stores excess energy in large triglyceride droplets and brown fat has smaller droplets and a high number of mitochondria that burn fat to produce heat. Newborns have a relative abundance of brown fat, which protects against exposure to cold temperatures. By adulthood, however, most brown fat is lost.

Researchers have searched for years for therapies that can transform an adult’s white fat into brown fat – a process called "browning" that happens naturally when the body is exposed to cold temperatures — to offer treatment for obesity and diabetes.

“There are several clinically available drugs that promote browning, but all must be given as pills or injections,” said study co-leader Li Qiang, Ph.D., assistant professor of pathology and cell biology at CUMC, in a news release. “This exposes the whole body to the drugs, which can lead to side effects such as stomach upset, weight gain, and bone fractures. Our skin patch appears to alleviate these complications by delivering most drugs directly to fat tissue.”

The treatment would consist of the drugs being loaded onto a centimeter-square skin patch with dozens of microscopic needles. When stuck to the skin, the needles pierce the skin – pain-free – and gradually release the drug into the underlying tissue.

“The nanoparticles were designed to effectively hold the drug and then gradually collapse, releasing it into nearby tissue in a sustained way instead of spreading the drug throughout the body quickly,” said patch designer and study co-leader Zhen Gu, Ph.D., associate professor of joint biomedical engineering at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University, in a statement.

In tests on obese mice, nanoparticles were loaded with one of two compounds known to promote browning: rosiglitazone (Avandia) or beta-adrenergic receptor agonist (CL 316243) that works well in mice but not in humans. Each mouse was given two patches — one loaded with drug-containing nanoparticles and another without drug — that were placed on either side of the lower abdomen. New patches were applied every three days for a total of four weeks. Control mice were also given two empty patches.

Mice treated with either of the two drugs had a 20 percent reduction in fat on the treated side compared to the untreated side. They also had significantly lower fasting blood glucose levels than untreated mice.

Tests in normal, lean mice revealed that treatment with either of the two drugs increased the animals’ oxygen consumption (a measure of overall metabolic activity) by about 20 percent compared to untreated controls.

According to genetic analyses, the treated side contained more genes associated with brown fat than on the untreated side, suggesting that the observed metabolic changes and fat reduction were due to an increase in browning in the treated mice.

Zhen Gu, Ph.D./University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Electron microscope image of the micro needles.

“Many people will no doubt be excited to learn that we may be able to offer a noninvasive alternative to liposuction for reducing love handles,” said Qiang in a statement. “What’s much more important is that our patch may provide a safe and effective means of treating obesity and related metabolic disorders such as diabetes.”

The patch has not been tested in humans. The researchers are currently studying which drugs, or combination of drugs, work best to promote localized browning and increase overall metabolism.

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