At Cal Poly Pomona, biology professor Ansel (Yuanxiang) Zhao and her students employ stem cells to examine the counterbalancing molecular mechanics of fat development and fat breakdown.

Watch out for side effects

In a four-year, $422,000 study funded by National Institutes of Health, they are investigating how 14 different drugs (already known to cause weight gain as a side effect) may inhibit or prevent the breakdown of fat. (Here are the NIH abstract and a report from Cal Poly Pomona.)

According to Zhao, “Many common drugs prescribed to millions of people each year have been clinically linked to significant weight gain as a result of undesired side effect (referred to as obesogenic effect), but the underlying pharmacological mechanisms are poorly understood.

“Medication-induced obesity,” she continues, “could lead to other health risks, including diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, as well as a risk of adverse effect from discontinuing the medication. The lack of understanding of how different medications can cause weight gain makes it difficult to prevent or counteract this side effect.”

What role does BPA play?

In another stem-cell study , supported by the CSU Program for Education and Research in Biotechnology, Zhao and her team are looking to explore how bisphenol (BPA) — a chemical widely used in dental procedures, food storage and plastics — may affect fat production.

According to Zhao, recent animal cell studies suggest that exposure to BPA may contribute to obesity by increasing both the number of fat cells formed and their size. Her team hopes ultimately to measure BPA’s effects on stem cell differentiation and gain a clearer understanding of the potential health threat BPA may pose at common exposure levels.

Maybe resveratrol can help

A student-research project presented at CSUPERB’s 2010 Biotechnology Symposium examined how Resveratrol, a natural inflammation-suppressant found in plants, affects fat production in humans – again using human stem cells as an in vitro model.

“Our results,” the students reported, “suggest that Resveratrol could be a beneficial non-dietary supplement for treating human conditions, including obesity and osteoporosis; however, cautions need to be taken on the recommended daily dosage of synthetic Resveratrol in order to achieve a balanced outcome.”

According to Zhao, the Resveratrol project continues. “We are getting a better understanding on the effect of Resveratrol on human stem-cell development with each new experiment,” she said.

— Sean Kearns

More on obesity from Science & the CSU: