Scientists to investigate helpful and harmful fat

13 November 2017        

Category: Research

Scientists at the University of Oxford are to investigate why people store fat in different parts of their body.

Image of a fat cell

An image of an abdominal fat cell. The intense green shows a cluster of microphages – cells crucial to the housekeeping and turnover of fat cells – while the blue shows their cellular nuclei. 

Being overweight increases the risk of heart disease, however, the risk is greater if excess weight is stored around the waist. Surprisingly, fat stored around the hips appears to have the opposite effect and seems to protect against heart disease. 

In order to investigate this phenomenon Professor Fredrik Karpe has been awarded £779,000 by the BHF to study how genetics and epigenetics determine where fat is stored and the risk of heart disease. 

While a person’s genes provide a set of instructions for the behaviour of cells in the body, chemical marks laid down around the genes can affect whether these genes are turned on or off – a process known as epigenetics. 

Studying twins

Currently, the degree to which genetics and epigenetics influence a person’s body shape is not known. So, as part of this project, Professor Karpe will study a large group of twins to determine the extent to which fat distribution is inherited or controlled by other factors. 

He will also examine how fat cells in the upper and lower body fat tissue work by analysing fat samples from people with different body shapes. The research may identify safer ways for people to store fat and help reduce the risk of heart disease. 

The project will utilise genetic data held in the Oxford Biobank which was established by Professor Karpe in 2000 with funding from the BHF. The database was created as a resource to help develop new treatments and drugs for patients. More than 8,500 people living in Oxfordshire have voluntarily donated a genetic sample allowing scientists to have a better understanding of common diseases and how to prevent them. 

Laying foundations

Professor Fredrik Karpe, said: “Through this project we aim to learn more about what governs the storage of fat in the body. It will also provide us with new insight into how ‘good’ fat cells work and how they protect against heart disease. 

“Identifying the mechanisms that control body fat storage would lay the foundation for new disease prevention strategies.

“By finding a way to interfere with that mechanism, it might be possible to promote safer fat storage in the body and reduce a person’s risk of heart disease.”

Dr Shannon Amoils, our Senior Research Adviser, said: “There is much we still do not know about the behaviour of fat in the body. But the work that Professor Karpe is leading could start to reveal some of the answers. 

“Research like this has helped halve death rates from heart and circulatory disease over the past 50 years. However, heart and circulatory disease is still responsible for a quarter of all UK deaths. 

“That’s why it is vital that we continue to fund science which can identify new ways to treat and prevent heart disease.”