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Skin Health

Surprise! Fat Cells Below the Skin Protect Us from Sepsis

In a paper published in the January 2nd 2015 issue of Science, researchers at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine report the surprising discovery that fat cells below the skin help protect us from bacteria.

Richard Gallo, MD, PhD, professor and chief of dermatology at UC San Diego School of Medicine and colleagues have uncovered a previously unknown role for dermal fat cells, known as adipocytes: They produce antimicrobial peptides that help fend off invading bacteria and other pathogens.

A release from the university quotes Gallo as saying, “It was thought that once the skin barrier was broken, it was entirely the responsibility of circulating (white) blood cells like neutrophils and macrophages to protect us from getting sepsis. But it takes time to recruit these cells (to the wound site). We now show that the fat stem cells are responsible for protecting us. That was totally unexpected. It was not known that adipocytes could produce antimicrobials, let alone that they make almost as much as a neutrophil.”

The release explains that the human body’s defense against microbial infection is complex, multi-tiered and involves numerous cell types, culminating in the arrival of neutrophils and monocytes – specialized cells that literally devour targeted pathogens.

But before these circulating white blood cells arrive at the scene, the body requires a more immediate response to counter the ability of many microbes to rapidly increase in number. That work is typically done by epithelial cells, mast cells and leukocytes residing in the area of infection.

Staphylococcus aureus is a common bacterium and major cause of skin and soft tissue infections in humans. The emergence of antibiotic-resistant forms of S. aureus is a significant problem worldwide in clinical medicine.

Prior published work out of the Gallo lab had observed S. aureus in the fat layer of the skin, so researchers looked to see if the subcutaneous fat played a role in preventing skin infections.

Ling Zhang, PhD, the first author of the paper, exposed mice to S. aureus and within hours detected a major increase in both the number and size of fat cells at the site of infection. More importantly, these fat cells produced high levels of an antimicrobial peptide (AMP) called cathelicidin antimicrobial peptide or CAMP. AMPs are molecules used by the innate immune response to directly kill invasive bacteria, viruses, fungi and other pathogens.

AMPs are our natural first line defense against infection. They are evolutionarily ancient and used by all living organisms to protect themselves,” said Gallo.

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