Researchers discover copper has fat-burning properties

Christopher Chang/Courtesy

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A group of researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory published a study Monday describing research that discovered that the metal nutrient copper is essential in metabolizing fat.

The team of researchers, led by Christopher Chang —  a faculty scientist at the Berkeley Lab and campus professor of chemistry —  was able to explain copper’s role in metabolizing fat for the first time. After five years of research, the team concluded that copper was able to block the enzymes that are responsible for stopping the process of burning fat.

“Copper is one of the most abundant transition metals in the human,” Chang said. “The more copper in the fat cell, the more fat will be burned.”

Chang and his team used molecular imaging probes in order to track the copper levels in fat cells. In order to identify the connection between copper and fat burning, the researchers compared fat cells with different levels of copper content and their corresponding abilities to burn fat.

This comparison and other biochemical studies proved that the copper was able to intercept enzymes that send signals to stop fat from metabolizing. According to Marc Hellerstein, campus professor in the department of nutritional science and toxicology, the human metabolism is a complex molecular system that functions like “the economy of the body.”

This study offers interesting discoveries while still in its early stages, according to Hellerstein. He added that he has never seen findings that suggested conclusions about copper such as this one.

The researchers tested the hypothesis by comparing healthy mice with mice infected with Wilson’s disease. Researchers observed that the mice with Wilson’s disease accumulated too much copper in the liver, causing other organs to experience a lack of copper nutrients.

According to Chang, the next step of the study is to conduct the same experiment but on larger animals. By working their way “up the pyramid,” scientists will be able to understand if copper can help relieve symptoms of obesity.

“Our findings is just the beginning,” said Joseph Cotruvo, co-lead author of this study. “We’ve opened up a new avenue to attacking the problem of obesity.”

Furthermore, Hellerstein said this study offers additional information about obesity. People with obesity break down fat into the blood at a higher rate than those without obesity, causing a problem because fat released from fat cells will transfer into other cells.

While Chang agrees that there is no magic cure for obesity at the moment, he said this study suggests a natural way to boost the burning of fat in the human body. He added that understanding how we burn fat gives us more information about reaching a solution of obesity.  

Contact Stina Chang at [email protected].