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What Is Lipotoxicity?

An organ transplant may be required if fat buildup disrupts the normal activity of an organ.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 28 October 2014
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Lipotoxicity is damage to tissues not designed for fatty acid storage. It can develop in patients with diabetes and some other conditions, and has been explored as a possible cause of what is commonly called “metabolic syndrome.” Diagnosis of this problem can be accomplished with testing of tissues in question, along with medical imaging studies and a review of the patient’s history. The best options for treatment can depend on the specifics of the case.

Tissues in the human body have the capacity to store energy in the form of fat in specialized cells evolved for this purpose. These cells are capable of handling buildups of fatty acids, releasing them when needed by the body as a source of fuel. Other tissues are more sensitive and cannot tolerate accumulations of fatty acids or their byproducts. When these materials are mistakenly stored in inappropriate locations, the tissue can develop lipotoxicity, which interferes with cellular function.

Organs like the liver and kidneys are particularly vulnerable to lipotoxicity because of their construction and nature, which involves numerous highly specialized cells. Buildups of fat can disrupt the normal activity of the organ, leading to eventual failure. This can cause a chain reaction as the liver or kidneys are no longer capable of fully participating in metabolism. Severe complications can develop because the body is no longer able to metabolize many compounds and can experience a toxic buildup of chemicals and byproducts.

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The heart can also be affected by lipotoxicity; it is not designed to store fatty acids either, and they may interfere with heart function. Cells within the heart may die or fail to beat in an organized fashion, leading to complications like myocardial infarction and arrhythmia in the patient. A blood test can reveal increased levels of fatty acids in circulation, while medical imaging studies may show deposits inside the organs, indicating that lipotoxicity is occurring.

Treatment options depend on the organs involved and the patient’s medical history. It may be necessary to make dietary changes and take medications to address high levels of circulating fatty acids. Supportive therapy to help the kidneys, liver, or other organs recover may also be necessary. People with failing kidneys, for example, could need dialysis or a transplant to replace organs too badly damaged to continue functioning. The underlying cause, like poorly controlled diabetes, may also be addressed to prevent a future episode and keep the patient as healthy as possible.

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