Lipotoxicity: when tissues overeat

Curr Opin Lipidol. 2003 Jun;14(3):281-7. doi: 10.1097/00041433-200306000-00008.


Purpose of review: This review will provide the reader with an update on our understanding of the adverse effects of fatty acid accumulation in non-adipose tissues, a phenomenon known as lipotoxicity. Recent studies will be reviewed. Cellular mechanisms involved in the lipotoxic response will be discussed. Physiologic responses to lipid overload and therapeutic approaches to decreasing lipid accumulation will be discussed, as they add to our understanding of important pathophysiologic mechanisms.

Recent findings: Excess lipid accumulation in non-adipose tissues may arise in the setting of high plasma free fatty acids or triglycerides. Alternatively, lipid overload results from mismatch between free fatty acid import and utilization. Evidence from human studies and animal models suggests that lipid accumulation in the heart, skeletal muscle, pancreas, liver, and kidney play an important role in the pathogenesis of heart failure, obesity and diabetes. Excess free fatty acids may impair normal cell signaling, causing cellular dysfunction. In some circumstances, excess free fatty acids induce apoptotic cell death.

Summary: Recent studies provide clues regarding the cellular mechanisms that determine whether excess lipid accumulation is well tolerated or cytotoxic. Critical in this process are physiologic mechanisms for directing excess free fatty acids to specific tissues as well as cellular mechanisms for channeling excess fatty acid to particular metabolic fates. Insight into these mechanisms may contribute to the development of more effective therapies for common human disorders in which lipotoxicity contributes to pathogenesis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Death / drug effects
  • Fatty Acids / blood
  • Fatty Acids / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Kidney / metabolism
  • Lipid Metabolism*
  • Lipids / administration & dosage
  • Lipids / blood
  • Liver / metabolism
  • Muscle, Skeletal / metabolism
  • Myocardium / metabolism
  • Pancreas / metabolism
  • Signal Transduction


  • Fatty Acids
  • Lipids