Brown Fat and Pancreatic Islets

Brown Fat and Pancreatic Islets: Did you know that you have a type of fat in your body that works to burn calories instead of hording them? This substance is known as brown fat and it is exciting researchers looking for ways to reduce obesity and, in turn, the incidence of diabetes.

CNNHealth reports, “Brown adipose tissue (called brown fat) helps babies, young children, and other small mammals stay warm by burning calories when activated by low temperatures. Scientists have been skeptical that adults retain significant amounts of brown fat on their bodies. But the new research shows that many of us — perhaps even most — do.”

What may be most interesting to diabetic researchers is that this previously elusive brown fat (discovered in most patients below their collarbone or in their upper chest) seems to kick into calorie burning mode when the environmental air around the body dips. The activity observed through PET-scans show that winter is the most productive time for brown fat while summer is the least productive.

To put this in perspective consider a study conducted in Sweden by Dr. Sven Enerback, of the University of Goteborg, “Participants spent two hours in a room kept at 63° F to 66° F. During the scan, they submerged one foot in ice water, alternating five minutes in the water and five minutes out. The cold conditions boosted the amount of glucose the study participants’ brown fat consumed by a factor of 15.”


The total of bonus calories burned by brown fat on a daily basis was around 500 in optimum conditions. In order to benefit you would physically need to be colder. Some researchers argue it may be more beneficial to simply follow a healthier diet and exercise a bit more.

In other news, Forbes.com reports that, “Pancreatic islets, which are hormone-producing cells, are becoming more prominent in diabetes research and could play a major role in future treatments.” These findings were derived from an American Medical Association (AMA) report.

The AMA suggests, “Perhaps the most prominent clinical application of this research is currently in the form of cell replacement therapy. With the exception of one report in a type 2 diabetes cohort, islet transplantation has been used exclusively for a subset of individuals with type 1 diabetes mellitus and was shown, at least temporarily, to improve glucose control and, in a few cases, to lead to insulin independence.”

This is good news for patients who are currently tied to insulin therapy. If control can be achieved without the need for insulin then Type 1 diabetics could potentially see greater stability in their diabetes management and may not need to regulate by eating more food and gaining additional weight just to manage their condition.

The authors of the AMA report indicate, “The importance of human pancreatic islets, clinically or for basic science research, is substantiated by the number and quality of studies being performed that rely on these preparations. Data available through the ICR as of August 2008 indicate that a total of 151 national and international scientists received human islets for use.” This means scientific labs are banking pancreatic islets for research and therapy purposes.

The American Diabetes Association describes the process this way, “In pancreatic islet transplantation, cells are taken from a donor pancreas and transferred into another person. Once implanted, the new islets begin to make and release insulin.”

Brown fat and pancreatic islet transplantation provides two more potential targets in finding treatment options for diabetic patients.