Scientists find the origin of 'bad' fat linked to heart disease and cancer

People can still carry visceral fat around their organs without it showing in their weight

Science Editor

Scientists have discovered the origin of the “bad” kind of fat found in the body which is linked with heart disease, cancer and other serious obesity-related illnesses, even though people carrying it can look slim.

The fat that builds up around abdominal organs such as the heart, kidney and intestine – known as visceral fat – is considered a silent killer because it’s possible for people to have a lot of it without looking particularly overweight.

It is more dangerous than the subcutaneous fat layers stored beneath the skin, and now researchers have found that it stems from a different source because it derives from a specific type of cell found in the developing embryo when it is still in the womb.

The discovery could eventually lead to new ways of controlling how this kind of cell contributes to the bad fat surrounding the vital organs so that it becomes possible to lower the chances of developing the kind of obesity that raises the risk of serious disease, they said.

A study on genetically modified mice found that 80 per cent of the visceral fat of the abdomen comes from embryonic cells known from a gene that they express called Wt1, which is linked with kidney tumours. Subcutaneous fat has a different origin and does not express the Wt1 gene, the researchers found.

“Determining the origins of good and bad fat has been one of the big unanswered questions in obesity research. We’ve now shown that most bad fat comes from cells expressing the Wt1 gene in the later stages of pregnancy,” said You-Ying Chau of Edinburgh University.

“We also found that cells expressing Wt1 continue to act as a source of visceral fat into adulthood where they may be influenced by external factors such as diet. If we would find a way to control the regulation of these cells, we might be able to stop the body laying down any more bad fat around the organ,” said Dr Chau, the lead author of the study in Nature Cell Biology.

Professor Nick Hastie of the Medical Research Council’s Human Genetics Unit in Edinburgh said although the visceral fat of the abdomen is formed after birth, it originates from embryonic cells in the womb which are also involved with forming the protective mesothelium membrane around the six visceral fat depots of the abdomen.

“We found strong evidence for the existence of a mesothelium, which was a big surprise because nobody thought this membrane existed in fat. It seems that not only does the mesothelium help to produce the cells that make the fat, it also surrounds the fat, making it into a neat little organ,” Professor Hastie said.

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Photographer / Floorplanner / Domestic Energy Assessor

    £16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Photographer/ Floor planner /...

    Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Surrey - £40,000

    £30000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Guildford/Craw...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

    £13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

    £16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious and motivated Sale...

    Day In a Page

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence