Higher levels of blood fats in people with type 2 diabetes and obesity are more damaging than presumed, new research has revealed.

For people with metabolic diseases, increased fat in the blood puts stress on muscle cells. This reaction is caused by changes outside the cell which harm their structure and function.

A study led by researchers at the University of Leeds has revealed that a signal is given off by stressed cells which is passed on to other cells.

These signals, called ceramides, could be beneficial short-term as they are designed to reduce stress in cells. However, in metabolic diseases, which are long-term, these signals can kill the cells and worsen the symptoms and illness.

It has been known that having more fat in the blood can harm tissues and organs and contribute to the development of cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes. Obesity, which has risen by almost 300 per cent since 1975, can cause the condition.

Lee Roberts, research supervisor and Professor of Molecular Physiology and Metabolism at the University of Leeds’s School of Medicine, said: “Although this research is at an early stage, our discovery may form the basis of new therapies or therapeutic approaches to prevent the development of cardiovascular and metabolic diseases such as diabetes in people with elevated blood fats in obesity.”

The study involved exposing skeletal muscle cells to a fatty acid, palmitate, to replicate the blood fat levels found in people with metabolic disease. These cells started to give off the ceramide signal.

The researchers noted that when these cells were combined with ones that had not been exposed to fats, they communicated and transported the signal in packages called extracellular vesicles.

When the study was replicated using volunteers with metabolic diseases, the results were similar.

These findings offer a new perspective on how cells respond to stress, with important consequences for our knowledge surrounding metabolic diseases, such as obesity.

Professor Roberts explained: “This research gives us a novel perspective on how stress develops in the cells of individuals with obesity and provides new pathways to consider when looking to develop new treatments for metabolic diseases.

“With obesity an ever-increasing epidemic, the burden of associated chronic disease such as type 2 diabetes necessitates new treatments. We hope the results of our research here open a new avenue for research to help address this growing concern.”

The research was published in the journal, Nature Communications.

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