Aims/hypothesis: Several studies have suggested that large fat cells are less responsive to insulin than small fat cells. However, in these studies, large fat cells from obese individuals were compared with smaller fat cells from leaner participants, in effect making it impossible to draw conclusions about whether there is a causal relationship between fat cell size and insulin sensitivity. We hypothesised that small fat cells might be more insulin-responsive than large adipocytes when obtained from the same individual.
Materials and methods: We developed a method of sorting isolated primary human fat cells by using nylon filters of two different pore sizes. The cells were stained to visualise DNA, which allowed discrimination from artefacts such as lipid droplets. The sorted cells were left to recover overnight, since we had previously demonstrated that this is necessary for correct assessment of insulin response.
Results: We found similar amounts of the insulin receptor (IR), IRS-1 and GLUT4 when we compared small and large adipocytes from the same volunteer by immunoblotting experiments using the same total cell volume from both cell populations. Activation of IR, IRS-1 and Akt1 (also known as protein kinase B) by insulin was similar in the two cell populations. However, immunofluorescence confocal microscopy of plasma membrane sheets did not reveal any increase in the amount of GLUT4 in the plasma membrane following insulin stimulation in the large fat cells, whereas we saw a twofold increase in the amount of GLUT4 in the small fat cells.
Conclusions/interpretation: Our results support a causal relationship between the accumulation of large fat cells in obese individuals and reduced insulin responsiveness.