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UMMS study to examine how different body fat plays a role in type 2 diabetes

Diabetes and obesity researcher Silvia Corvera advancing understanding of fat development and function

By Sandra Gray and Bryan Goodchild

UMass Medical School Communications

October 14, 2020

Scientists know that individuals who accumulate fat around their belly are much more at risk of developing diabetes than those who have it in the lower body. A new four-year, $2 million grant will help Silvia Corvera, MD, learn more about about how the development and function of fat cells differ in people with and without type 2 diabetes. The findings may help explain what causes diabetes and related conditions including fatty liver and cardiovascular disease.

“We will take the progenitor cells that make adipose, or fat tissue, from patients and, using the techniques we have developed, implant them in ‘humanized’ mice, where they will make new fat tissue. We will then see if the newly formed fat is different depending on where the cells came from in the body, or whether they came from patients with diabetes,” said Dr. Corvera, the Endowed Chair in Diabetes Research and professor of molecular medicine. “We are looking for the biological differences in the development of fat tissue in two parts of the body, and their impact on disease state.”

The Corvera lab uses small amounts of human fat from different locations in the body to study cells called mesenchymal progenitors, which become fat cells. For this study, researchers will extract small amounts of abdominal fat and gluteal fat from patients with type 2 diabetes and controls without the disease.

Understanding the differences in genes expressed in mesenchymal progenitors from abdominal fat or gluteal fat and how they become different types of fat cells will help elucidate how different fat depots form, and if they vary between people with and without type 2 diabetes. It will also help explain why lower body fat is beneficial, and maybe recapitulate these beneficial effects in ways that can improve health.

“We are looking for why those differences exist, if they were there from the beginning and if they are influenced by environment,” said Corvera. “We’ll be able to study the cells as they develop and then we’ll be able to see how they form tissues and how that tissue affects the humanized mouse metabolism.”

In related research, the discovery of “beige” or “brite” fat has raised the possibility of new approaches to treating type 2 diabetes that harness beige fat’s ability to burn energy and accelerate metabolism. The Corvera lab has developed a method to generate the creation of beige fat cells in mice using precursor cells present in white fat from humans. When these cells were implanted in mice with diabetes, their metabolism improved.

Media coverage:
Worcester Business JournalUMass researcher earns $2M grant for diabetes research 
WCVB-TVResearchers investigate role human fat plays in Type 2 diabetes  
Science News for StudentsGene editing can alter body fat and may fight diabetes  

Related stories on UMassMed News:
WJAR-TV/NBC 10 goes inside Silvia Corvera’s ‘fat lab’
Silvia Corvera, Michael Czech receive $2.5M grant to advance potential therapy for type 2 diabetes
UMMS researchers illuminate origins, benefits of ‘beige fat’