Fats: Friend or Foe?

Fats: Friend or Foe?

Edith Porter‘s research is changing the way people think about fats.

In the grocery store, around the dinner table and online, people are talking about their fight with fats. There‘s the battle of the bulge, calorie counting and the never-ending struggle to slim one‘s waist line.

But, in the natural defense lab at Cal State L.A., Edith Porter, of biological sciences, is looking at the role fats play in overall health in a new light. Porter and her student researchers are trying to answer the question: How are fats fighting for us?

Research conducted in the lab over the last eight years indicates that fats are actually an embedded arm of our innate defense system (the immune defense system the body has from birth). Porter, whose research focuses on  surface-lining cells in the respiratory tract, said that means that when bacteria are inhaled and attempt to enter the body through airways, fats—or lipids—are one of the preliminary lines of defense.

Some fats, she said, might be integral to keeping people free of bacteria and infection.

“We are changing the way we think about fats,” said Porter, who also collaborated with CSULA chemistry professors Krishna Foster and Feimeng Zhou, and UCLA scientists. ”We have to view lipids separately and in context—identifying which lipids are good and bad.

“Cutting out all lipids from our diet might be bad … especially if there are lipids that, when transported to our respiratory tract, result in an increase in our ability to produce defense lipids,” she explained.

In the lab, Porter said, a direct correlation between the body’s response to foreign bacteria and the amount of lipids was seen. When lipids were removed from patients’ nasal fluid, for instance, the bacteria-killing ability diminished. Likewise, when the lipids were reintroduced, the bacteria-killing capability increased.

They have also shown that there is an increase of certain antibacterial lipids in chronic sinusitis rhino, an infection or inflammation of the sinuses, suggesting that the body tries to fight against bacteria by increasing the output of antibacterial lipids.

“(Showing that lipids are part of the antibacterial defense) was the most exciting part,” said Safi Moshkani, MS ’06, who contributed to a 2008 Journal of Immunology paper on the topic.

“One of the most challenging parts,” Moshkani added, “was the research, trying to find papers on this subject. I would come back to Dr. Porter and say ‘there are none.’ The research was so new—it was kind of an untouched area. We did a lot on our own.”

The lab is not the first to look at lipids’ beneficial side—extensive research has shown the antimicrobial properties of lipids in breast milk, for instance. But the CSULA lab’s findings place lipids as a key factor in immune defense. The lab also developed techniques for selectively removing and reintroducing lipids into biological fluid, which will help advance other research endeavors.

“I spent a year sort of struggling with this machine and it paid off in the second year,” said graduate student Mike Jansen, who refined methods for identifying lipids in complex body fluids.

All of this new knowledge and thinking about lipids, Porter said, could lead to some novel approaches in treating bacterial infections of the respiratory tract, including tuberculosis, bronchitis and cystic fibrosis. She sees three major areas for future exploration in antimicrobial lipids: developing antibiotics or drugs that use them; finding ways to increase the natural production of them; and developing drugs that prevent bacterial enzymes from degrading them.

Lipids, she said, are not likely to be a one-stop solution for bacterial infections, but could support the fight against the many diseases and infections becoming increasingly drug-resistant and difficult to treat.