press information / news

Imaging
13.03.2018

New method verifies metabolic activity of brown fat

Brown adipose tissue has played a key role in prevention research since its presence was first documented in adults. However, there was no non-invasive method of measuring its heat generation. A team at Helmholtz Zentrum München and the Technical University (TUM) has now succeeded in making the activity of brown adipose tissue visible without injecting substances. The study is published in ‚Cell Metabolism‘.

© G. Diot/TUM

In the cold, brown adipose tissue acts like a heat generator. However, the heat output of brown adipose tissue in humans decreases with increasing age and is also less active in diabetics and obese persons. Therefore, scientists are researching the factors which keep the brown adipose tissue active. Because it is able to burn energy from carbohydrates and fat, it is of great interest for interventions against obesity and diabetes.

Until now, it has only been possible to measure the heat output of brown adipose tissue by means of invasive methods. This approach involves the injection of radioactive substances called "tracers" which participate in the metabolism, making it possible to observe the heat conversion in the tissue. However, the authors have developed a new, non-invasive method. The initial measurements in humans have also been successful without the need to inject imaging agents.

Laser method goes under the skin

The research team led by Prof. Dr. Vasilis Ntziachristos, director of the Institute of Biological and Medical Imaging at Helmholtz Zentrum München, demonstrated a relationship between the metabolic activation of the tissue and changes in oxygenated and deoxygenated hemoglobin (red blood pigment), measured by means of multispectral optoacoustic tomography (MSOT). Professor Ntziachristos, MSOT pioneer and Director of the Chair for Biological Imaging at TUM, explains the new investigative method as follows: "A laser beam sends light pulses approximately two to three centimeters deep into the tissue. This light is absorbed by tissues containing hemoglobin causing them to minimally warm up and transiently expand. This expansion creates sound waves which can be measured."

The study demonstrates a direct relationship between the metabolic activation of the brown adipose tissue measured using hemoglobin gradients as an intrinsic biomarker of tissue metabolism and its calorie consumption after stimulation. “Overall we expect MSOT to become a key tool in measuring metabolic parameters in tissue, using portable and safe MSOT technology” notes Ntziachristos. He adds: “This ability can revolutionize understanding of metabolic processes not only in patients but also in healthy individuals.”

Blood flow and oxygen saturation as markers for tissue metabolism

"The higher metabolic demand of the brown adipose tissue is supplied by increased blood circulation and oxygen utilization, which can be made visible in the tissue and the venous outflow by MSOT” explains Professor Martin Klingenspor from the Chair for Molecular Nutritional Medicine. "This means that blood flow and changes in oxygen saturation in blood are markers for metabolic output."

MSOT can overall enable the investigation of an increased number of functional tissue parameters, beyond metabolism, including inflammation or angiogenesis. Overall it is expected that the combination of safe non-ionizing radiation and a portable format will enable novel applications of the technology in point-of-care and outpatient settings. A next step for the investigating team is to examine the accuracy of the technology in quantifying the effect of various medications in the active fat content of the human body.  

Further Information

Original Publication:
Reber, J. et al. (2018): Non-invasive Measurement of Brown Fat Metabolism Based on Optoacoustic Imaging of Hemoglobin Gradients. Cell Metabolism, DOI: 10.1016/j.cmet.2018.02.002

As German Research Center for Environmental Health, Helmholtz Zentrum München pursues the goal of developing personalized medical approaches for the prevention and therapy of major common diseases such as diabetes mellitus, allergies and lung diseases. To achieve this, it investigates the interaction of genetics, environmental factors and lifestyle. The Helmholtz Zentrum München has about 2,300 staff members and is headquartered in Neuherberg in the north of Munich. Helmholtz Zentrum München is a member of the Helmholtz Association, a community of 18 scientific-technical and medical-biological research centers with a total of about 37,000 staff members. 

The Institute of Biological and Medical Imaging (IBMI) conducts research into in vivo imaging technologies for the biosciences. It develops systems, theories and methods of imaging and image reconstruction as well as animal models to test new technologies at the biological, preclinical and clinical level. The aim is to provide innovative tools for biomedical laboratories, for diagnosis and for the therapeutic monitoring of human diseases.

The Technical University of Munich (TUM) is one of Europe’s leading research universities, with around 550 professors, 41,000 students, and 10,000 academic and non-academic staff. Its focus areas are the engineering sciences, natural sciences, life sciences and medicine, combined with economic and social sciences. TUM acts as an entrepreneurial university that promotes talents and creates value for society. In that it profits from having strong partners in science and industry. It is represented worldwide with the TUM Asia campus in Singapore as well as offices in Beijing, Brussels, Cairo, Mumbai, San Francisco, and São Paulo. Nobel Prize winners and inventors such as Rudolf Diesel, Carl von Linde, and Rudolf Mößbauer have done research at TUM. In 2006 and 2012 it won recognition as a German "Excellence University." In international rankings, TUM regularly places among the best universities in Germany.

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