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Can Fat Fight Infection?

Jan 04, 2015 11:01 PM EST

You normally don't hear a lot about how fat can be good for you. Watching your waistline has always been considered part of a healthy lifestyle. However, new research has determined that the cells that put mean on your bones aren't always a bad. In fact, they could help protect the body against infection.

That's at least according to study recently published in the journal Science, which details how fat may specifically help keep bacterial infections out of the skin - the first physical line of defense the body has against infection.

For the study, a team of researchers exposed a sampling of lab mice to Staphylococcus aureus - a common bacterium that causes skin and soft tissue infections in humans.

Closely analyzing how these mice fared, the researchers observed how their adipocytes (fat cells) reacted to the bacterium's presence. Astoundingly, it was clear that within only a few hours of exposing the mice to S. aureus, the number and size of adipocytes found at the infection site rose significantly.

Looking closer, the research team found that the adipocytes produced large amounts of cathelicidin antimicrobial peptide (CAMP) - an antimicrobial peptide that forms a part of the innate immune system response to kill off infection. In that sense, the fat cells were almost functioning like a supply line for a battlefield, getting closer to the action to more immediately help the immune system go to war.

"It was thought that once the skin barrier was broken, it was entirely the responsibility of circulating [white] blood cells to protect us from getting sepsis," Richard Gallo, chief of dermatology at the University of California said in a statement. "We now show that the fat stem cells are responsible for protecting us [first]. That was totally unexpected."

However, the researchers are quick to note that this doesn't mean that obese individuals are better at fighting off disease. While common infections might stand less of a chance, heavy people's unusually high levels of CAMP also make them more prone to autoimmune and inflammatory diseases, such as lupus and psoriasis.

The secret then, as is often the case with weight management, is balance.

"These findings may help researchers understand disease associations with obesity and develop new strategies to optimize care," added Gallo. "The key is that we now know this part of the immune response puzzle. It opens fantastic new options for study."

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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