Fatty Love Handles Could Soon Be Treated With a Medical Patch

A skin patch applied to obese mice reduced fat by 20 percent in one week, and could also help to treat obesity in humans.

A medical patch applied to obese mice reduced fat by 20 percent and could help treat obesity in humans, according to a new study by researchers from Columbia University and the University of North Carolina.

What if you could melt away your love handles by sticking a patch to your skin? It sounds like something from a late-night TV infomercial, but researchers, publishing in the journal ACS Nano,found a new way to shrink fat cells, which could not only help shave off extra pounds, but might also help treat disorders related to obesity, like diabetes. What’s more, the treatment could be available over-the-counter at your local pharmacy within the next few years. 

Researchers from the Columbia University Medical Center and the University of North Carolina discovered a new method that can turn white fat, which stores energy, into brown fat that works to burn energy and produce heat, a process often referred to as browning. As babies, we have a plethora of brown fat to protect us from cold temperatures, but as we mature, most of the brown fat turns to white fat, making it harder to shed weight. 

The trials were conducted on obese mice using drugs that are known to be effective at browning fat in mice. The next step is to figure out the best drugs to use for testing this method on humans. 

“We are working hard to translate this treatment to humans and we don’t foresee any obvious barrier for the translation,” Dr. Li Qiang, assistant professor of pathology and cell biology at Columbia University and lead study author, told Seeker. “We have some candidate drugs for human trials and we are working to optimize the combinations and dose,” he said. 

While there are several oral and injection treatments that currently promote browning in humans, these methods expose the whole body to the medication, which can cause side effects like nausea and even bone fracture, according to Qiang. The important discovery in his trials was the method used to administer the medication. A skin patch is applied to the targeted area, painlessly administering nanoparticles of medicine into fat tissue. 

“The nanoparticles will not enter circulation, thus they minimize the effects on other organs, such as the heart and bones,” Qiang said. “The micro-needle ensures region-specific drug delivery [and] the glucose sensing technology [ensures] proper drug release,” he added. “Through the combination of these designs, we would like to make sure our treatment is efficient, safe, and region-specific.”

RELATED: 90 Percent of Men in the US May Be ‘Overfat’

During the study, Qiang and his team applied two patches to the lower abdomen of the obese mice — one containing the browning drugs and one without — every three days for four weeks. They found that mice treated with either of the two drugs (rosiglitazone or beta-adrenergic receptor agonist) had a 20 percent reduction in fat on the treated side compared to the untreated side. They also found that when they tested the drugs on normal, lean mice, the oxygen consumption of the mice was increased by 20 percent, an indication that this method could help diabetics. 

“We observed the increase of energy metabolism and glucose homeostasis after our treatment, which we think is through improved adipose (body tissue used for fat storage) health,” Qiang said. “We believe that more diabetic drugs can be administrated in this way to minimize their undesired side effects while achieving their anti-diabetic function.”

RELATED: Alcohol Consumption Lowers Diabetes Risk — but Is Abstaining Bad for You?

This treatment could potentially offer a non-invasive alternative to liposuction and help rid people of undesired fat, but Qiang believes the more important use of this method will be to reduce the health risks associated with obesity. He also believes the skin patches could be on the market relatively soon and may even be available over-the-counter. 

“We don’t think it will take long to provide this patch option to treat love handles in humans,” Qiang said. “We are very optimistic to make it happen soon as an over-the-counter option.”

WATCH: Should We Stop Calling Obesity a Disease?