Melanin is a pigment that gives the skin, the hair, and the iris of the eye their natural colour.Ancha Baranova, an assistant professor in the Department of Molecular and Microbiology at George Mason University, claims that melanin production has never before been identified in fat tissue.
She believes that the antioxidant, which has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties, could be the body's natural defence against obesity-related conditions such as type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, fatty liver disease, polycystic ovary syndrome and some cancers.
"Stockpiling extra calories is difficult even for specialized fat cells; having too much lipid molecules takes its toll on the fat cells, producing oxidative stress," she says.
"It's not unthinkable that these cells would adapt and produce melanin as a form of self-protection. As a side benefit, melanin may suppress inflammatory properties of the extra pounds of the fat," she adds.
Ancha agrees that a larger study is needed to confirm the role that the body's production of this compound plays in fat tissue, but insists that her team's two-year study suggests that melanin-based therapies may some day be used to reduce the incidence of chronic diseases among the morbidly obese.
"This opens an entirely new avenue for medical interventions because the process of biosynthesis of melanin is relatively easy to meddle with. We hope that this study will spur the development of preventive medications aimed at curtailing devastating metabolic complications in obese and overweight populations," she says.
The study was conducted in collaboration with researchers from INOVA Fairfax Hospital and the National Cancer Institute. Its findings appear in the current Web edition of the FASEB Journal, and will be published in the March 2009 print edition.