New Study Shows Fat Cells Beneath Skin Protect Against Bacteria

A healthy immune response is what was once thought to be our bodies defender against all infections, including skin infections. However, in a new study by Researchers at UC San Diego School of Medicine, it looks like fat cells below the skin actually do much more than what was previously known. The study shows fat cells below the skin actually protect us from bacteria.

This unknown role of dermal fat cells was uncovered by Richard Gallo, a Professor and Chief of Dermatology at the UC San Diego School of Medicine along with his research colleagues who worked in the study. What the team discovered is that adipocytes, the dermal fat cells, produce antimicrobial peptides that help our bodies defend against invading bacteria and other harmful pathogens.

Richard Gallo stated that, “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.”…”We now show that the fat stem cells are responsible for protecting us.”

The lead investigator in the study stated that this discovery was completely unexpected for the team and that it had not been known to the scientific community prior to this study that adipocytes could in fact produce antimicrobials, at all. More surprising still, was the fact that adipocytes could produce almost as much antimicrobials as a neutrophil.

The Gallo Lab researchers had previously published work where they had observed S. aureus (Staphylococcus aureus) in the fat layer of the skin. Staphylococcus aureus is a common bacterium and major cause of skin and soft tissue infections found in humans.This discovery led the researchers to look at the possible role the subcutaneous fat could potentially play in prevention of disease and skin infections. The result, eventually led to this ground-breaking discovery that adipocytes do indeed play a larger role than once thought.

Researcher Ling Zhang, performed the initial studies on mice by exposing them to S. aureus. Zhang reported that very shortly afterwards they detected a major increase in the number and size of fat cells in the infection site. Most profound was that Zhang realized the fat cells were producing high levels of an antimicrobial peptide (AMP) called Cathelicidin Antimicrobial Peptide (CAMP).

AMPs are molecules used by the bodies immune response to directly kill invasive bacteria, viruses, fungi and other pathogens. The appropriate proportion of CAMP in humans is key. Too little CAMP and people experience frequent infections. The best example being atopic eczema. Individuals with too little CAMP often experience frequent Staph infections and viral infections as well. However, when a person has too much CAMP, it can be a bad thing. Richard Gallo said, “Evidence suggests excess CAMP can drive autoimmune and other inflammatory diseases like lupus, psoriasis and rosacea.” Further research will stem from the Gallo Lab findings.

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