April 1, 2009 -- (BRONX, NY) -- Researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University have discovered a process that controls the amount of fat that cells store for use as a back-up energy source. Disruption of this process allows cellular fat to accumulate -- a key factor in age-related metabolic diseases such as obesity and type 2 diabetes. The study is published today in the online version of Nature.
Discovery of this previously unknown fat-fighting pathway could lead to novel drugs for the treatment of metabolic syndrome (characterized by obesity, blood lipid disorders, and insulin resistance) and for a common liver disease known as "fatty liver" or steatohepatitis. Nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) is a common, often "silent" liver disease. Although NASH resembles alcoholic liver disease, it occurs in people who drink little or no alcohol. NASH affects 2 to 5 percent of Americans, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
All cells store lipids, a type of fat, in the form of small droplets that can be broken down for energy when needed. In situations of excessive food intake or in certain diseases such as diabetes or obesity, these lipid droplets become so large that they interfere with normal cell function.
"In this study, we found that the amount of fat stored in these intracellular lipid droplets is controlled through autophagy, a process until now thought to help primarily in digesting and recycling damaged cellular structures," says Mark Czaja, M.D., professor of medicine at Einstein whose team worked collaboratively on the research with the laboratory of Ana Maria Cuervo, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of developmental & molecular biology, medicine, and anatomy & structural biology at Einstein.
Autophagy, or "self-eating," is carried out by lysosomes, which function as the cell's recycling center. In studies of liver cells in culture and in live animals, Dr. Czaja and his colleagues discovered that lysosomes do something never before observed: continuously remove portions of lipid droplets and process them for energy production.
"When food is scarce, autophagy becomes a main source of energy for the cells and this process of digesting lipid droplets is accelerated," says Dr. Cuervo. "If autophagy slows down, as occurs in aging, the lipid droplets stored in cells keep growing and eventually become so big that they can no longer be degraded."
This slowdown in fat control appears to trigger a vicious cycle in which the enlarging fat droplets impair autophagy, allowing even more fat to accumulate, and so on, which could eventually contribute to diseases such as diabetes. The researchers noted that therapies aimed at helping autophagy operate more efficiently might prevent disease by keeping fat droplets under control.
Drs. Cuervo and Czaja's paper, "Autophagy regulates lipid metabolism" is published in the April 1 online version of Nature. Their co-authors at Einstein include Rajat Singh and Susmita Kaushik (primary co-authors), Yongjun Wang, Youqing Xiang, and Inna Novak; as well as Masaaki Komatsu and Keiji Tanaka of the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Medical Science, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo, Japan.
About Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University
Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University is one of the nation's premier centers for research, medical education and clinical investigation. It is the home to some 2,000 faculty members, 750 M.D. students, 350 Ph.D. students (including 125 in combined M.D./Ph.D. programs) and 380 postdoctoral investigators. Last year, Einstein received more than $130 million in support from the NIH. This includes the funding of major research centers at Einstein in diabetes, cancer, liver disease, and AIDS. Other areas where the College of Medicine is concentrating its efforts include developmental brain research, neuroscience, cardiac disease, and initiatives to reduce and eliminate ethnic and racial health disparities. Through its extensive affiliation network involving five hospital centers in the Bronx, Manhattan and Long Island - which includes Montefiore Medical Center, The University Hospital and Academic Medical Center for Einstein - the College runs one of the largest post-graduate medical training program in the United States, offering approximately 150 residency programs to more than 2,500 physicians in training. For more information, please visit www.aecom.yu.edu.