Belly fat’s not so bad.

By Amy Mayer • Published: September 5th, 2012
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

If you’re trying to make peace with a little extra fat around the belly, here’s something that might help: the omentum (oh-MEN-tum). The omentum is a lining in the abdomen that serves as a repository for fat tissue, and it has healing properties. That’s been long known — omentum cells are deployed to help repair damaged tissue in other organs.

But what hasn’t been understood is how the omentum’s healing properties work. Now, new research published in the journal PLOS One presents findings about the nature and function of those belly-fat cells. There are at least two distinct types of omentum cells that researchers say have healing properties. That makes some believe this organ may actually exist specifically to heal or repair other bodily tissues. Until now, most experts believed the omentum was no more important than the appendix.

The team at Loyola University Chicago’s Stritch School of Medicine artificially activated T-cells in mice to see how the omentum cells would respond. Normally, activated T-cells would multiply. Instead, the omentum cells killed them. That has the scientists wondering just how powerful a protector the omentum cells might be. And they’ve been able to identify at least part of how the cells work. The omentum cells appear to secrete something that inhibits the immune response. This discovery could lead to new therapies that suppress the immune system. Patients recovering from organ transplantation must take drugs to suppress the immune system, but many current treatments can cause a bevy of unwanted side effects.

What’s more, the researchers also found that the stem cells in belly fat have the potential to turn into cells that can help regenerate damaged tissue. Understanding the omentum more thoroughly could lead to improved drugs for autoimmune conditions such as Crohn’s disease and lupus, too.

So befriend your belly fat. Someday it might just help you heal.