NTU scientists develop 'fat-burning' patch to combat obesity

Assistant Professor Xu Chenjie (left) and Professor Chen Peng from the National Technological University (NTU) with their newly-developed fat-burning patch. Photo: NTU
Assistant Professor Xu Chenjie (left) and Professor Chen Peng from the National Technological University (NTU) with their newly-developed fat-burning patch. Photo: NTU

Scientists from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) have developed a new type of “painless” and affordable skin patch set to combat obesity.

The patch delivers, via hundreds of micro-needles, drugs that are known to turn energy-storing white fat into energy-burning brown fat.

The team hopes the patch will help to address the worldwide obesity problem “without resorting to surgical operations or oral medication, which could require large dosages and could have serious side effects”, according to an article published in scientific journal Small Methods last month by Professor Chen Peng and Assistant Professor Xu Chenjie from the NTU School of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering.

The World Health Organization estimates that 1.9 billion adults in the world were overweight in 2016 with 650 million suffering from obesity.

Because the drugs – Beta-3 adrenergic receptor agonist or T3 triiodothyronine (thyroid hormone T3) – are delivered directly to targeted areas, the patch is “less likely” to have side effects compared to oral medication.

Beta-3 adrenergic receptor agonist, a drug approved by the Federal Drug Administration of the United States, is used to treat overactive bladders, while thyroid hormone T3 is commonly used as medication for an underactive thyroid gland.

“What we aim to develop is a painless patch that everyone could use easily, is unobtrusive and yet affordable,” said Prof Chen.

Users simply have to press it into the skin for about two minutes, allowing the micro-needles to become embedded in the skin and detach from the patch, which can then be removed.

The prototype patch, estimated to cost about $5 to make, contains beta-3 adrenergic receptor agonist combined with hyaluronic acid, a substance naturally found in the human body and commonly used in products like skin moisturisers.

The amount of drugs used in the patch will be 20 to 30 times less than those used in oral medication or an injected dose, hence lowering costs. The patch’s slow-release design also minimises side effects.

Photo: NTU
Photo: NTU

For instance, both Beta-3 adrenergic receptor agonist and thyroid hormone T3 can pose potentially serious side-effects, such as affecting bowel activity and causing headaches, and drug accumulation in non-targeted tissues if conventional drug delivery routes were used, such as through oral intake.

Experiments have shown that the patch, which has not been tested on humans, could suppress weight gain in mice that were fed a high-fat diet and reduce their fat mass by over 30 per cent, over a period of four weeks.

These mice also had significantly lower blood cholesterol and fatty acids levels compared to their untreated counterparts.

Since the publication of the paper, the team has received keen interest from biotechnology companies and is looking to partner clinician scientists to further their research.

The patch is estimated to be commercially-ready in five to 10 years’ time.

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