Some Types of Obesity Might be Caused by a Faulty Immune System

When we think of our Immune systems, we normally entertain visions of white blood cells that fight off invading viruses and bacteria. However, recent work suggests that our immune systems may also being fighting a war against fat.

When laboratory mice are engineered to lack a specific type of immune cell, they become obese and show signs of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes. Even though these findings have yet to be replicated in humans, they are already helping scientists understand the triggers of metabolic syndrome, a cluster of conditions associated with obesity.

A new study “definitely moves the field forward,” says immunologist Vishwa Deep Dixit of the Yale School of Medicine, who was not involved in the work. “The data seem really solid.”

Scientists have known for some time now that there is a correlation between inflammation—a heightened immune response—and obesity. Fat cells have the ability to release inflammatory molecules, which complicates these findings, since it is difficult to distinguish if the inflammation causes weight gain or is a side effect of weight gain.

Immunologist Yair Reisner of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, came upon this new cellular link between obesity and the immune system while he was studying autoimmune diseases. Reinser was interested in an immune molecule called perforin, which kills diseased cells by boring a hole in their outer membrane. Reisner’s group suspected that perforin-containing dendritic cells might also be destroying the body’s own cells in some autoimmune diseases. To test their hypothesis, Reisner and his colleagues engineered mice that lacked perforin-wielding dendritic cells. Then they waited to see whether they developed any autoimmune conditions.

“We were looking for conventional autoimmune diseases,” Reisner says. “Quite surprisingly, we found that the mice gained weight and developed metabolic syndrome.”

Mice lacking the dendritic cells with perforin had high levels of cholesterol, early signs of insulin resistance, and molecular markers in their bloodstreams associated with heart disease and high blood pressure. Furthermore, the immune systems of these laboratory animals revealed that they also had a peculiar balance of T cells—a type of white blood cell that directs immune responses.

Reisner and his colleagues report online in the journal Immunity that when they removed these T cells from the mice, the absence of dendritic cells no longer caused the animals to become obese or develop metabolic syndrome.

The results, according to Reisner, suggest that the normal role of the perforin-positive dendritic cells is to keep certain populations of T cells under control. In the same way that perforin acts to kill cells infected with viruses, it can be directed to kill subsets of unnecessary T cells. When the brakes are taken off those T cells, they cause inflammation in fat cells, which leads to altered metabolism and weight gain.

“We are now working in human cells to see if there is something similar going on there,” Reisner says. “I think this is the beginning of a new focus on a new regulatory cell.” If these results turn out to be true in humans, they could point toward a way to use the immune system to treat obesity and metabolic disease.

Daniel Winer, an endocrine pathologist at the University of Toronto in Canada and the lead author of a January Diabetes paper that links perforin to insulin resistance, says the new results overlap with his study. Winer and his group found that mice whose entire immune systems lack perforin developed the early stages of diabetes when fed a high-fat diet. This new paper builds on that by homing in on perforin-positive dendritic cells and showing the link even in the absence of a high-fat diet. “It provides further evidence that the immune system has an important role in the regulation of both obesity and insulin resistance.”

Even if the results hold true in humans, however, a treatment for Type 2 diabetes, obesity or metabolic disease are far off. Dixit said. “Talking about therapeutics at this point would be a bit of a stretch.” Injecting perforin into the body could kill cells beyond those T cells that promoting obesity. We can’t live without any T cells at all, since they are vital to fight diseases and infections.

However, research on what these T cells are recognizing when they seek out fat cells and cause inflammation in fat tissue could eventually reveal drug targets.


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Professor of Biochemistry at Spring Arbor University (SAU) in Spring Arbor, MI. Have been at SAU since 1999. Author of The Stem Cell Epistles. Before that I was a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, PA (1997-1999), and Sussex University, Falmer, UK (1994-1997). I studied Cell and Developmental Biology at UC Irvine (PhD 1994), and Microbiology at UC Davis (MA 1986, BS 1984).