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How the body uses fat to fight infection

NORWICH (UK), December 2021 — New research reveals how our immune cells use the body’s fat stores to fight infection. The research, published in Nature Communications, could help develop new approaches to treating people with bacterial infections.

The research team, led by scientists at the University of East Anglia (UEA), studied salmonella – a bacterial infection that causes diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal pain, fever and sepsis. The UEA team collaborated with colleagues at the Quadram Institute and at the Earlham Institute to track fatty acid movement and consumption in live stem cells. They went on to analyze the immune response to salmonella bacterial infection by assessing liver damage.

In doing so they uncovered how blood stem cells respond to infection, by acquiring high energy fatty acids from the body’s fat stores. The team found that in the bone marrow where blood stem cells are resident, infection signals drive adipocytes to release their fat stores as fatty acids into the blood. And they identified that these high energy fatty acids are then taken up by blood stem cells, effectively feeding the stem cells and enabling them to make millions of salmonella-fighting white blood cells.

The researchers also identified the mechanism by which the fatty acids are transferred.

Stuart Rushworth, Ph.D., from UEA’s Norwich Medical School, said, “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.”

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DOI: 10.1038/s41467-021-27460-9