The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is working on a drug that could temporarily raise people’s body temperatures, making them resistant to cold environments. A bioengineer has won a funding grant from DARPA and the Pentagon to explore any drugs that could do this, which will utilize the body’s own machinery of breaking down sugar and creating fat cells.
The process of generating heat in the body is called thermogenesis, and happens in two main ways.
“One involves shivering, which all of us have experienced,” Rice University bioengineer Jerzy Szablowski explains in a statement.
“If you are getting ill and you are developing a fever, you begin to shiver, and that shivering raises your body temperature. The problem is that you lose dexterity and it is really unpleasant.”
“The other type of thermogenesis involves BAT [brown adipose tissue], which is capable of generating heat through a chemical reaction,” he continued.
“Nonshivering thermogenesis kicks in sooner but is not as efficient, so it cannot generate quite as much heat, at least not in humans.”
The drug would target the second type, utilizing brown adipose tissue to generate heat immediately. Brown adipose tissue breaks down sugars using a unique enzyme, a process that generates enough heat to keep the body alive until shivering kicks in.
In contrast to white adipose tissue, which is the main issue in obesity, brown adipose tissue is a lot more useful and only activates in cold temperatures. It begins to burn available resources as an emergency measure, making it a vital survival pathway. If a drug can increase that metabolism, it could help everyone from soldiers, to EMTs responding to emergencies.
The grant is going to allow the researchers to use modern screening technologies to scan through huge numbers of drug candidates to find a potential match.
“First, you have to understand the biology of the disease or physiological process, and then find a site to intervene, like a protein or a process in the cell that you can target with a drug,” said Szablowski.
“This is where this project comes in. The main innovation of this screening method is that it is mechanism-agnostic, meaning that we might not need to fully understand the disease or physiological process before developing mitigation strategies.”