One of the biggest myths in fitness is that you can burn fat locally by targeting certain muscle groups. But, unfortunately, the old saying goes “abs are made in the gym but revealed in the kitchen” – there’s no way to get a toned stomach without losing body fat all over. At least, there isn’t right now, but a new study in mice could mean that a simple skin patch could zap troublesome flabby areas into oblivion in the future.
The study, run by researchers at the Columbia University Medical Center in New York City, focused on turning white fat – the stagnant, troublesome kind that builds up around the waist in men – into brown fat, which is used for energy storage and burns off quickly.
Li Qiang, the study’s co-leader and an assistant professor of pathology and cell biology at Columbia, explained in a news release that the drugs they’re using aren’t new – ways of “browning” fat exist – but the delivery method is, and it’s much better for the body.
“There are several clinically available drugs that promote browning, but all must be given as pills or injections,” Qiang said. “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.”
Outside of all the science, however, Quiang definitely knows why the general public would be stoked: “Many people will no doubt be excited to learn that we may be able to offer a non-invasive alternative to liposuction for reducing love handles,” he said.
How the patch actually works is pretty wild. The drugs are put into nanoparticles, microscopic containers exponentially thinner than a strand of hair. They’re then loaded into a tiny, centimeter-square skin patch with a surface of dozens of microscopic needles, that sink into the skin (painlessly, the news release is careful to point out), and deliver the drugs to the underlying tissue.
It’s important to point out that so far, the patches have only been tested in mice, so a human version of the patch might look a little different. The system was designed by Zhen Gu, PhD, an associate professor of joint biomedical engineering at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University.
“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,” Gu said in the Columbia release.
To test the patch, researchers loaded them with two different drugs and applied them to obese mice (the concept of an obese mouse is funny in and of itself), but only on one side. It turns out that mice who got patched with either of the two drugs had a 20 per cent reduction in fat on the side with the patch.
It certainly sounds easier than the prior methods of activating brown fat, which is famously triggered by extreme cold. While taking a cold shower before bed has been shown to zap an extra 400 calories or so through brown fat, a skin patch sounds a lot more comfortable, even if it is loaded with microneedles.
Of course, the patch isn’t going on the market tomorrow, and there’s still a lot of research to be done.