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Fat’s Role in Immune System Function

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Researchers have found fat cells, also known as adipocytes, may function as part of the immune system and help regulate lipid accumulation, which may result in preventing diseasessuch as cancer and diabetes.

They conducted the study on pigs by exposing pig fat cells to interferon-gamma, a small protein in the body that is produced by infection fighting T-cells. This resulted in the production of hormone-like proteins, called cytokines, which react to invading toxins and behave almost identically to the immune cells that fight off disease.

In another part of the study, they found that a ligand called LPS, which are small molecules that bind to particular large molecules, binds to the receptor molecules outside of pig fat cells and signals the fat cells to produce more hormone-like cytokines.

The outcome of this study proved that fat cells play an important role in helping insulin regulate blood sugar levels and can aid in the response to cancerous cells. However, too much fat in pigs, researchers found, upsets the body’s hormonal balance. As fat cells accumulate an excess of lipids, they secrete greater amounts of certain biochemicals and less of others, creating abnormalities that can lead to diseases such as diabetes and cancer.

Their next step is to search for other factors, such as certain classes of fatty acids that can activate or suppress the LPS receptor. After this is found, researchers say they might be able to control the receptor and immune pathways to regulate the body’s metabolism and apply that to diabetes and cancer.

American Journal Physiology December 4, 2003

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