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Black spots between the shoulder blades

Black spots between the shoulder blades

Joris Hoeks inspired by Barbara Cannon

Ten years ago, nobody would have believed that adults could have something like brown fat. That was something found only in animals and new-borns, who are in need of extra heat. Because brown fat is a tissue that burns calories, thus providing heat.

At the time, in 2004, postdoc Joris Hoeks (36) went to Stockholm. He did research into metabolism in muscles and became interested in the UCP3 protein. Why? Because it can actually be found in humans, and is presumed to do the same as brown fat: burn calories. If so, then it could serve as a weapon in the fight against obesity.

In Stockholm University, Hoeks met the authority in the field of brown fat: Barbara Cannon. Hoeks had previously met the retired professor at a congress, where he did a poster presentation. “She came up to me, asked interesting questions, and then engaged in a pleasant conversation. I always think that ‘big names’ are inaccessible and never have any time, but Barbara is an especially affectionate person. She has an impressive store of ready knowledge. Not just in her own field, but also outside it. She is the type of researcher who is driven by curiosity, someone who wants to know how the human body works. She is not led merely by ambition, status, or research funds.”

Hoeks worked in Cannon’s lab for a year and learned a lot. He applied the skills and knowledge in his own research. No, Hoeks is not the only one who admires her, he says. Cannon, originally British, has more than thirty honorary positions to her name. She is now president of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and chairwoman of the trustees of the Nobel foundation.

So what is the story with brown fat? By now it has been established beyond the shadow of a doubt that adults also have brown fat, between the shoulder blades and along the vertebra. “This discovery brought about a real hype in 2009, many researchers jumped on this subject, especially because it could provide a solution for obesity. That is, if we succeed in activating the brown fat so that it actually burns calories. That research is now in full swing.”

Hoeks says that what is not so well known, is the fact that Cannon was the first to discover brown fat in humans. “She saw black spots between the shoulder blades on scans of tumour studies and knew enough. She described this in a publication in 2007. In doing so, she is one of the founders of brown fat research in humans.”

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