BACKGROUND: Type 2 diabetes is associated with increased plasma concentrations of non-esterified fatty acids (NEFAs), which trigger pancreatic beta-cell dysfunction and apoptosis. Only long-chain saturated NEFAs induced lipotoxicity in rat insulin-producing cells in in vitro experiments, whereas unsaturated NEFAs were not toxic. Some unsaturated NEFAs even protected against lipotoxicity. In former studies it was suggested that long-chain unsaturated NEFAs, which induce the formation of lipid droplets, can cause sequestration of palmitic acid into lipid droplets. In the present structure-activity-relationship study the correlation between lipid droplet formation and the protection against palmitic acid induced lipotoxicity by unsaturated NEFAs in rat insulin-producing cells was examined. METHODS: Rat insulin-producing RINm5F and INS-1E tissue culture cells were incubated in the presence of palmitic acid and unsaturated NEFAs with different chain lengths and different numbers of double bonds. The expression of the lipid droplet associated proteins perilipin 1 and 2 was repressed by the shRNA technique and the expression analyzed by qRT-PCR and Western blotting. Viability was measured by MTT assay and the accumulation of lipid droplets was quantified by fluorescence microscopy after Oil Red O staining. RESULTS: Long-chain unsaturated NEFAs strongly induce the formation of lipid droplets in rat insulin-producing RINm5F and INS-1E cells. In RINm5F cells incubated with 11-eicosenoic acid (C20:1) 27 % of the cell area was covered by lipid droplets corresponding to a 25-fold increase in comparison with control cells. On the other hand the saturated NEFA palmitic acid only induced minor lipid droplet formation. Viability analyses revealed only a minor toxicity of unsaturated NEFAs, whereas the cells were markedly sensitive to palmitic acid. Long-chain unsaturated NEFAs antagonized palmitic acid induced lipotoxicity during co-incubation, whereby no correlation existed between protection and the ability of lipid droplet formation. Perilipin 1 and 2 expression was decreased after incubation with C20:1 to about 80 % by shRNA. For the protective effect of long-chain unsaturated NEFAs against lipotoxicity of saturated NEFAs repression of perilipin was not of crucial importance. CONCLUSIONS: Long-chain unsaturated fatty acids protected rat insulin-producing cells against lipotoxicity of saturated fatty acids. This protective effect was not dependent on lipid droplet formation. Thus lipid droplet formation is apparently not essential for the protective effect of unsaturated NEFAs against palmitic acid toxicity.
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