Gordon Smith

(Love) Handle with Care: How Science Could Soon Change Your Lumpy Physique

Through the medium of nanotechnology, science has created a patch that will quietly reduce your love handles. The future is here.


“More to love,” “cuddle-friendly,” “winter baggage”: what ever cutesy way you dress it up, your hips are as fat-riddled as they are prone to lie. Sure, they might help give your belly a more rounded, friendly face, and they do help framing that awkward, not-quite-innie-not-quite-outie bellybutton of yours, but deep down, you’re not too proud of the doughy mess you’ve become.

“If only there was something I could do to change,” you say, while changing nothing about your current diet or habits, “why can’t someone give me the tools I need to succeed?”

“Someone” finally has.

Researchers from Columbia University Medical Center have created a medicated skin patch designed to turn energy-storing white fat into energy-burning brown fat locally while also raising the body’s overall metabolism. In the process, pockets of unwanted fat (see: your love handles) could be burned off and metabolic disorders like obesity and diabetes could be treated.

Like all good experiments, the patch was tested on mice with results published online in ACS Nano.

While white fat stores excess energy in large triglyceride droplets, brown fat has smaller droplets and a high number of mitochondria which burn fat to produce heat. Newborns have a relative abundance of brown fat which protects bundles of joy against exposure to cold temperature. That’s not to say your “it keeps me warm” excuse will fly for long, however: come adulthood, most brown fat is lost.

The use of therapy to transform an adult’s white fat into its brown counterpart – a process creatively known as “browning” – has been the stuff of researchers’ dreams for years and has been considered as a treatment for obesity and diabetes. This browning process can occur naturally when the body is exposed to cold temperatures.

“There are several clinically available drugs that promote browning, but all must be given as pills or injections,” says the Center’s assistant professor of pathology and cell biology, PhD, and study co-leader, Li Qiang. “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.”

In applying the treatment, the drugs are first encased in nanoparticles – too small to be seen with our mere mortal eyes, at roughly 250 nanometers each. Compare this to the average human hair at about 100,000 nanometers in width and you start to appreciate just how nano these nanoparticles are.

“Many people will be excited to learn that we may be able to offer a non-invasive alternative to liposuction … More important is our patch may provide a safe and effective means of treating obesity and related metabolic disorders such as diabetes.”

These nanoparticles are then loaded into a centimeter-square skin patch containing dozens of microscopic needles which, when applied to skin, “painlessly” pierce the skin and gradually release the drug from nanoparticles into underlying tissue.

Patch designer and study co-leader Zhen Gu, PhD, who is also an associate professor of joint biomedical engineering at the University of North Carolina, explains that these nanoparticles were “designed to effectively hold the drug and then gradually collapse.” In the process, the drug is then released into nearby tissue “in a sustained way, instead of spreading the drug throughout the body quickly.”

As always, science’s favorite obese mice were brought in to put the experimental patch through its paces. Nanoparticles were loaded with one of two compounds known to promote browning: rosiglitazone, or beta-adrenergic receptor agonist, shown to work well in mice but not in humans. Each mouse was then given two patches – one loaded with drug-containing nanoparticles, one drug free – on either side of their lower abdomen. New patches were applied every three days for a total of four weeks.

Control mice, equally chunky as their experimental friends, were also given two empty patches. Those mice treated with either of the two drugs saw a 20% reduction in fat on the treated side compared to the untreated side. They also had significantly lower fasting blood glucose levels than untreated mice.

Further tests in lean mice revealed that treatment with either of the two drugs increased the animals’ oxygen consumption by about 20% compared to untreated controls. Genetic analyses also revealed that the treated side contained more genes associated with brown fat than on the untreated side, suggesting that the above mentioned metabolic changes and fat reduction were due to an increase in browning.

“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,” explains Dr. Qiang, as your hopes rise steadily. “What’s much more important is that our patch may provide a safe and effective means of treating obesity and related metabolic disorders such a diabetes.”

Of course, it wouldn’t be science if we didn’t have at least a little bit of parade raining to conclude with. The miracle fat reduction patch has not been tested in humans. Currently, researchers are studying which drugs – indeed, what combination of drugs – work best to promote localized browning and increase overall metabolism.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, all this talk of browning and love handles has really got me hungry.


Gordon Smith

Journalist by day, cunning linguist by night. A passion for politics, hypnotically involved in human rights. An Australian born with a Japanese tongue, hoping to hold the bigwigs in government to account.

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