Just 24 hours of exposure to the fatty acid palmitate or the hormone TNF-alpha via a fatty diet can damage fat cells, research shows.
The researchers hope this new knowledge may be useful for developing new preventive strategies for diabetes.
Precursor cells are cells that have not yet matured to undertake a specific function in the body, e.g. the function of a muscle or fat cell. Palmitate and TNF-alpha are able to disturb the development of the cell, causing it to develop into a dysfunctional fat cell later in its life. In particular, this reprogramming is found in obese patients suffering from type 2 diabetes, according to researchers from the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Basic Metabolic Research at the University of Copenhagen.
Exposure to palmitate happens via the food we eat, particularly foods containing large amounts of saturated fat such as dairy products, meat, and palm oil. TNF-alpha is an inflammatory hormone that is secreted in the body during illness. Obese patients also have a higher level of TNF-alpha, as obesity is linked to inflammation.
“Our results stress the importance of a healthy diet and lifestyle for our metabolic health in the years to come. To a large extent, a healthy diet and healthy lifestyle can help prevent the reprogramming of our precursor cells. In the long term, we hope our study may be at the origin of new strategies to reverse the abnormal programming of fat precursor cells, making them healthy and functional once again,” says Romain Barrès, who led the study.
Within epigenetic research, several studies have suggested that human precursor cells have a memory of past environmental exposures. But until now no one has been able to identify the factors affecting the reprogramming of precursor fat cells or establish the rapidity at which cells are reprogrammed.
In cooperation with the surgical gastroenterology unit at Hvidovre Hospital, the researchers collected fat tissue from 43 planned operations. 15 patients were lean, 14 were obese, and 14 were obese and suffered from type 2 diabetes. By collecting samples from three different groups of patients, the researchers were able to compare the health of the precursor fat cells of the three groups.
The team learned that the cells from the group of obese patients suffering from type 2 diabetes had been reprogrammed and therefore did not function like normal, healthy fat cells. By exposing healthy precursor fat cells to the two external factors for just 24 hours the researchers were able to mimic the reprogramming they had observed in cells from the diabetic patients.
The researchers are unsure whether it is possible to reverse the programming to make the cells healthy and functional again. And even if it is possible, they do not know how to do it.
“We now know that precursors cells can be reprogrammed in a way that function is impaired at the final stage of their development, but so far no one has discovered how to reverse the process. But it is a promising field,” says Barrès.
The study appears in the International Journal of Obesity.
Source: University of Copenhagen