Fat may help the pancreas adapt to excess sugar and therefore slow the onset of type 2 diabetes, according to scientists from the University of Geneva (UGINE), Switzerland.

The research, published in Diabetologia, indicates that pancreatic cells suffer less from excess sugar when they have previously been exposed to fat, suggesting fat may actually play a protective role as long as it is used as a source of energy.

These new findings contradict previous research which has suggested that exposure of beta cells to fat would cause their deterioration.

Exposing the cells to fat allowed insulin secretion to reach near-normal levels

To discover which cellular mechanisms are involved, the researchers studied how human and murine beta cells adapt to an excess of sugar and/or fat, and then a combination of the two.

While beta cells exposed to high sugar levels secreted much less insulin than normal, confirming the toxicity of sugar, exposing the cells to fat allowed insulin secretion to reach near-normal levels.

“When cells are exposed to both too much sugar and too much fat, they store the fat in the form of droplets in anticipation of less prosperous times”, explains Lucie Oberhauser, a researcher in the Department of Cell Physiology and Metabolism at the UNIGE Faculty of Medicine, and first author of this work.

“Surprisingly, we have shown that this stock of fat, instead of worsening the situation, allows insulin secretion to be restored to near-normal levels. The adaptation of beta cells to certain fats would thus contribute to maintain normal blood sugar levels.”

Release of fat is “not really a problem” as long as the body uses it as a source of energy

When the researchers looked into this further, they realised that fat droplets were not static reserves, but were the site of a dynamic cycle of storage and mobilisation. The released fat molecules therefore allow the beta cells to better adapt to excess sugar and maintain near-normal insulin secretion.

Pierre Maechler says that the release of fat is therefore “not really a problem” as long as the body uses it as a source of energy.

“To avoid developing diabetes, it is important to give this beneficial cycle a chance to be active, for example by maintaining regular physical activity,” he adds.

Scientists are now trying to determine the mechanism by which this released fat stimulates insulin secretion, in the hope of discovering a way to delay the onset of diabetes.