Fat cells give the body energy to combat infections

NORWICH, United Kingdom — Don’t be in a rush to lose that extra fat from the holidays, it might actually help you fight infections. That’s the conclusion of a new study that discovered another way of boosting the body’s immune system: fatty acids. As the main component of fat, researchers from the University of East Anglia say fatty acids provide the immune system with energy to fight harmful bacteria, like Salmonella.

Due to the overuse of antibiotics, bacteria are becoming increasingly drug-resistant over time. The World Health Organization (WHO) warns that antibiotic resistance is one of the “biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today.”

The body’s fat stores aid in the fight against antibiotic-resistant pathogens by supplying enough energy to produce millions of bacteria-killing white blood cells, the scientists say. The discovery could help develop new treatments for diseases caused by bacteria like Salmonella and Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).

“Our results provide insight into how the blood and immune system is able to respond to infection. Fighting infection takes a lot of energy and fat stores are huge energy deposits, which provide the fuel for the blood stem cells to power up the immune response. Working out the mechanism through which this ‘fuel boost’ works gives us new ideas on how to strengthen the body’s fight against infection in the future,” says study author Dr. Stuart Rushworth in a university release.

Tapping the fat stores to make white blood cells

Salmonella is a bacterial infection that causes diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal pain, fever, and sepsis. People usually encounter it when eating food contaminated by animal feces. In the U.S., Salmonella causes about 1.35 million infections and 420 deaths every year.

The researchers examined how the body’s immune system responds to the Salmonella bacteria. By analyzing liver damage, they were able to witness how blood stem cells in bone marrow respond to the infection. Fat stores entered into the bloodstream, effectively feeding the stem cells to make millions of Salmonella-fighting white blood cells.

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The team also mapped out the transfer of these fatty acids, adding that their findings could help develop new treatments for liver infections.

“Our results allow us to understand how our immune system uses fat to fuel the response to infection. Defining these mechanisms will enable us to develop new therapeutics to treat infections in the liver,” says study co-author Dr. Naiara Beraza at the Quadram Institute in Norwich, England.

New treatments to infections like Salmonella are desperately needed as these diseases are becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics.

“In the future, I hope our findings will help improve treatment for vulnerable and older people with infections, by strengthening their immune response. With antibiotic resistance being such a present and widespread challenge for society, there is an urgent need to explore novel ways like this to help the body’s immune system to fight infection,” Dr. Rushworth concludes.

The findings are published in the journal Nature Communications.

South West News Service writer Tom Campbell contributed to this report.