Research story

Body clocks don't just control sleep – they might affect fat cells too

Millions of people live with obesity in the UK, but the wider health risks of obesity are poorly understood. Dr Louise Hunter, a clinician and endocrinologist at the University of Manchester, thinks that our body clocks might unlock some answers.

A microscopic image of adipose tissue shows hundreds of pinky red globular blobs.

Nichola Barron, University of Manchester

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Histology of adipose tissue.

Louise Hunter

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Body clocks don't just control sleep – they might affect fat cells too
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Obesity affects one in four adults in the UK, and this can lead to an increased risk of health conditions like type 2 diabetes, fatty liver or even certain cancers.  

However, while some people’s risk of these conditions increases when they put on weight, we also know that some people can put on large amounts of weight and stay relatively healthy. 

The level of risk varies for different people — and we don’t know why.

What happens to fat storage cells in obesity? 

There's a lot of evidence that suggests our fat storage cells play an important role in determining why some people are more likely to develop health problems related to obesity. 

One theory is that as obesity develops, our fat storage cells start to fail, which means our body doesn't store fat as safely as it should. 

Normally, our fat tissue absorbs and releases fat as and when we need the energy or when we have an energy surplus. However, as obesity develops, that function can stop working as well. That's when people might accumulate fat elsewhere in their body, like in organs such as the liver, increasing the risk of organ dysfunction and disease. 

But we really need to understand why that happens. What are the triggers for causing our fat storage cells to fail? And why does it only happen to some people? 

That’s where the body clock might come in.

Uncovering the secrets of the body clock 

We've known for some time that there is a link between metabolic disorders (like type 2 diabetes or obesity) and the disruption of our body clock. For example, research has shown that people who do rotating shift work are more likely to develop these conditions.  

The body clock is a timekeeping mechanism that we have in almost every cell of the body. It's commonly associated with sleep cycles, but it also plays a critical role in regulating important metabolic processes in the body, including how fat cells function. 

So, my research is trying to understand more about the behaviour of our fat storage cells, how their function is regulated by the body clock and how that might then influence our risk of obesity-related diseases.  

More specifically, I’m investigating a protein within the body clock called Rev-erb-alpha.

All the cells in our body have a timekeeping mechanism called the molecular clock – or the body clock. We know it’s important, but we don’t really understand how it impacts our health. Dr Louise Hunter is hoping to change that. She’s researching if our body clocks affect the way that our cells store fat, and it could fundamentally improve our understanding of health and disease.

Using molecular biology processes in the lab, I conduct experiments to uncover what this protein is doing to change the expression of certain genes and how it influences the behaviour of the fat cell and the rest of the fat tissue. We also work with animal models, and further on in my project, I'm planning to work with human volunteers and human tissue samples.

Discovery research to improve human health 

As a clinician, I want my research to be relevant to people and their health conditions. I’m fascinated by digging into the nitty gritty of how our bodies work. At every level that you go to, there's always a further level of detail to try and understand.

This type of research is discovery research – it’s about trying to understand the fundamental processes that underlie what happens in health and disease. The better understanding we have of the basic processes, the better we can apply that knowledge to improve human health.

That's why I was drawn to Wellcome’s Early Career Award, because of the possibility and encouragement to pursue discovery research.

Ultimately, I hope that my research will improve our understanding of how to help people who develop obesity-related diseases. I want to get to a stage where we can personalise treatment tailored to their unique risks of developing certain conditions.

  • Louise Hunter

    Clinician and endocrinologist, University of Manchester

    Louise Hunter is a Clinical Senior Lecturer in the Division of Diabetes, Endocrinology Gastroenterology at the University of Manchester. She completed her PhD at the University of Manchester in 2019, having held an MRC Clinical Research Training Fellowship, and she now holds a Wellcome Early Career Award. She also works as a clinician at the Diabetes, Endocrinology and Metabolism Centre at Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust.