A new fat-finding tool from Israel attached to a microscope can speed up research into obesity-busting drugs and save researchers time and money.



Photo by Serge Attal/Flash 90.
By understanding how drugs affect fat cells, researcher Prof. Amit Gefen hopes to be able to help speed up research into fat-busting drugs for the obese.

Scientists in Israel have developed a ‘fat-finder’ that can help to accelerate the study of new fat-melting drugs. The microscope-based cell scanner devised by Tel Aviv University (TAU) researchers in tissue engineering can measure a broad number of variables in the way that drugs affect fat cells. It should speed up research into fat-busting drugs and could have additional uses for drug development and therapy in a variety of other fields as well.

“Good for studying fat, the ‘fat-finder’ is a general purpose tool that can also save researchers time and money,” says the tool’s inventor, Prof. Amit Gefen of TAU’s Faculty of Engineering. He says that he also hopes to devise better injury prevention and treatment regimes for paraplegics with his new technology.

The software-based tool, reported on in a recent issue of the journal, Tissue Engineering, fits onto a microscope like a pair of goggles and allows a scientist to measure a broad number of physical parameters in the Petri dish, while investigating fat cells.

They might explore how fat cells change when given insulin, or how they react when treated with new experimental drug compounds. Normally these kinds of questions need to be investigated with intensive pre-clinical and clinical trials – an expensive and time-consuming process.

Cell squats and push-ups

With the new tool he invented, Gefen can address these questions at the cellular level – by examining individual fat cells to watch what happens to them under experimental conditions. Scientists can see and assess quickly what is happening to each cell, and how individual cells change over time. Until now, fat tissues were studied as a whole, with little knowledge as to how cells react one by one. But a look at individual cells provides clues about the toxicity or effectiveness of a treatment almost immediately.

Gefen’s latest research looks at lab-engineered fat cells. He says that his ‘fat-finder’ can help scientists to answer questions in basic research and drug design, as it gives scientists the ability to accurately measure what happens in live cell cultures over time.

Equipped with algorithms to measure baseline cellular activity and compare it to how cells being experimented on behave, his device helps us to understand how fat tissue develops, so that ‘optimal’ tissue-engineered fat can be produced as a biological substitute for treating wounds and in plastic surgery procedures.

The professor is now adding other components to the microscope, such as a laser-based scan that can see cell slices in three dimensions. From these slices, he can make a computer model of the actual cell. Once the cell is ‘inside’ the computer, it can be stretched and compressed mechanically via software controls under very specific parameters.

Injury prevention for paraplegics

This tells the researchers how fat cells in different parts of the body react to pressure due to immobility, for example. “Our starting point is the chronic wounds field, but if you’re a brain researcher, you can use it to see how neurons respond to pressure,” he says.

Gefen’s interrelated tools open up many possibilities for basic biological research and drug development. Researchers will be able to ‘see’ details of cellular events that can’t be described by other methods. And the tools can help investigators planning drug studies and clinical trials to implement well-controlled and efficient tissue engineering protocols and experiments.

Until now Gefen’s engineered fat cell cultures and software tool have been tested using animal cells, but he plans to do similar studies based on human fat cells. In addition to helping drug developers come up with more effective anti-obesity drugs, Gefen’s research seeks to reveal more about paraplegics and how their weight gain affects other cells and body processes. With this information in hand, he hopes to be able to devise better injury prevention and treatment regimens.

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