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Research points to new ways to combat chronic conditions associated with poor diet

Brandon Paykamian • Aug 4, 2018 at 10:37 PM

Health problems that largely result from poor diet and health habits — including obesity and diabetes — cost Virginia and Tennessee more than $300 billion in health care costs each year.

With these enormous costs in mind, medical experts and scientists are continually expanding their understanding of how to combat obesity and associated health problems.

New research from the University of Virginia School of Medicine could shed more light on why obesity causes harmful inflammation that can lead to diabetes, clogged arteries and other health problems.

For the first time, researchers were able to explain why resident immune cells in fat tissue, which are thought to be beneficial, turn harmful during obesity and cause harmful inflammation. UVA researchers have since recently published their findings in “PNAS, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,” sparking some interest among health experts in Northeast Tennessee and across the country.

The research team, led by Norbert Leitinger of UVA’s Department of Pharmacology, found that damaging “free radicals” produced in our bodies react with lipids inside fat tissue. This, researchers said, causes inflammation, a natural immune response.

“Free radicals are so reactive that they want to hitch onto something,” researcher Vlad Serbulea explained in a press release from the university. “Lipids happen to be a very good sink for these radicals to combine with.”

Researchers said shorter truncated lipids are often protective, while longer “full-length” ones were inflammatory.

“When we compare healthy and obese tissue, what seems to change is the ratio of full-length and truncated oxidized lipids,” Serbulea continued. “Our studies show that the full-length, or longer, oxidized lipids are quite inflammatory. They promote inflammation within these immune cells, and we think that instigates and perpetuates the disease process within (fat) tissue during obesity.”

Dr. Valentin Yakubenko, an assistant professor in the East Tennessee State University Department of Biomedical Sciences and a member of the Center of Excellence for Inflammation, Infectious Disease and Immunity, said studies such as these are usually the first of many steps in developing new medicines.

Using this knowledge to develop new medicine could, however, take years of further research, according to Yakubenko.

“This study is just one breach in the wall for us to understand how the body works and how to protect us,” he said. “To develop a drug based on this study, the researchers need to find the particular truncated oxidized lipid that has a protective effect. If you use a mix of lipids, one or several products could be harmful.

“The development of a new drug takes a long time because it’s tempting to suggest something as a drug, but a long road is required to verify that this substance will not harm some other systems in the body.”

Once researchers figure this out, they may be able to develop a drug that would reduce the number of harmful, full-length oxidized lipids and find ways to promote beneficial phospholipids.

“Inflammation is important for your body’s defenses, so you don’t want to eliminate it completely,” Leitinger said. “It’s a question of finding the right balance.”

Still, the best way to combat obesity and chronic health problems associated remains to be prevention, Yukabenko said.

“There are two critical components that make a tasty ‘Southern diet’ harmful for your health – trans fats and added sugar. Trans fats change your metabolism, increase a ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol and reduce ‘good’ HDL cholesterol, that lead to the development of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. Added sugar has a low nutritional value, but a lot of extra calories that accelerates the obesity,” Yukabenko said.

“Avoiding major dietary sources of trans fat and added sugar such as deep-fried dishes, fried chicken, French fries; baked goods, doughnuts, cakes, cookies; and sugary beverages would help to improve your general health and reduce the risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.”

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