January 4, 2011, Updated July 27, 2014

Obesity research from Tel Aviv University

Photo by Serge Attal/Flash90
With obesity on the rise throughout the world, an Israeli professor hopes to find a way to breakdown the cells that produce fat in our bodies.


With obesity and diabetes rates rising in the western world, and most of us steadily losing the “battle of the bulge,” an Israeli researcher has a new computer method for analyzing fat, which may lead to more effective weight loss programs, and also to new treatments for diabetes.

Prof. Amit Gefen of Tel Aviv University’s Department of Biomedical Engineering is using a new computer model to measure the effect of mechanical load on fat cells. Mechanical load is defined as the amount of force or deformation placed on a particular area occupied by cells.

By recreating the structure of fat cells using his newly developed computer method, Gefen can determine how much mechanical load can be tolerated and at what point fat cells, which produce the fat in our bodies, will begin to disintegrate.

This might be the key to understanding how to control the amount of fat produced by fat cells, says Gefen, whose research is driven by the theory that fat cells, like bone or muscle cells, are influenced by mechanical loads.

Cells in space

The research, recently reported in the Journal of Biomechanics, has direct applications in weight loss programs, the treatment of bedsores and the management of chronic diabetes. “Any treatment that would be effective in fighting obesity would also apply immediately to diabetes,” Gefen explains.

According to the professor, applying mechanical loads on tissues can affect many different cells within our bodies. For example, zero gravity affects the bone density of astronauts. When astronauts return home after a prolonged space flight, he relates, they are often confined to a wheelchair for a short period of time.

The structures of their bones and muscles, which are determined by the cells that produce these structures, are weakened due to a lack of mechanical loads. This occurs because cells are deprived of “normal” mechanical stimulation, like walking.

Gefen believes that, much like bone or muscle cells, fat cells are also affected by mechanical loads. His new computer model takes slices of laser confocal microscopy images of cells and reconstructs a whole, virtual version of an individual cell, allowing researchers to evaluate how that cell will respond to different mechanical stimuli.

“Ab vibrators” on the right track

“We use these computer models to see how cells function under mechanical loading, much like simulations in structural engineering are used to test the strength of bridges or machines,” he explains.

After assembling their “virtual” fat cells, Gefen and his team found that fat cells or lipids have a point where mechanical loads can disintegrate them, as well as a point at which they are able to resist disintegration. Gefen is now trying to determine the specific load magnitudes and frequencies for fat cells, perhaps using ultrasound at a supersonic frequency to vibrate the tissue.

Those fat-busting “ab vibrators” that you can see on television infomercials are on the right track, he says, but the magnitude of mechanical loads and the frequency of their application need to be scientifically determined.

The next step for Gefen and his fellow researchers is to pin down the mathematical equations that allow for the dissolving of lipid droplets, then predict what a fat cell will do under certain levels of force. This will lead to better information on how to use mechanical loads to control the production of fat by fat cells – whether this means applying a certain frequency of ultrasonic vibration, or simply spending more time in the gym.

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Jason Harris

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