Rethinking Healthcare

How fat can actually protect against diabetes

How fat can actually protect against diabetes

Posting in Healthcare

Scientists uncover a gene that helps fat cells metabolize sugars, helping to control the body's glucose and insulin levels.

After decades of bad press, fat cells appear to have recruited their own lobby among scientists. Last month we learned how some kinds of fat cells can actually help our bodies burn fat. In the newest bout of fat re-branding, Harvard researchers report their discovery of a gene within fat cells that protects against diabetes.

Scientists have known for about a decade that fat cells help maintain blood sugar and insulin levels. Somehow, glucose (sugar) processing by fat cells appeared to affect whole-body sensitivity to insulin. Insulin is what encourages fat cells to take up glucose. Scientists hadn't fully understood this chain of events.

The Harvard team's found that the fat cell gene ChREBP turns glucose into fatty acids, reducing the amount of diabetes-causing glucose in your bloodstream.

When ChREBP senses rising glucose levels, it produces a more active version of itself, named ChREBP-β. ChREBP-β is what actually turns on the cellular machinery necessary to convert glucose to fatty acids.

The more ChREBP-β your body has, the better your insulin sensitivity, and the lower your chances of developing diabetes.

Since ChREBP-β predicts insulin sensitivity, it could be an effective target for anti-diabetes drugs.

The study also goes against conventional wisdom on fatty acids. Scientists previously thought fat tissue only synthesized small amount of them, and the fatty acids fat did synthesize appeared to signal insulin resistance. The findings from this study suggest that fat cell-generated fatty acids can actually benefit the body, and signal healthy glucose metabolism.

[via Nature]

Photo: Mykl Roventine/Flickr

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Audrey Quinn

Contributing Writer

Audrey Quinn is a Brooklyn-based multimedia journalist focused on health, tech and the economy. Her radio stories can be heard on Marketplace, Studio 360, PRI's The World, NPR's Latino USA, Deutsche Welle Radio and The Believer Magazine podcast. In addition to her work with CBS Interactive she produces multimedia science stories for online publications and is a teaching assistant at the Transom Story Workshop. Her investigative work has been awarded by the Fund for Investigative Journalism and The Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure