The Relationship Between the Fatty Acid Composition of Immune Cells and Their Function

Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. Sep-Nov 2008;79(3-5):101-8. doi: 10.1016/j.plefa.2008.09.016. Epub 2008 Oct 23.


The immune system, including its inflammatory components, is fundamental to host defence against pathogenic invaders. It is a complex system involving interactions amongst many different cell types dispersed throughout the body. Central to its actions are phagocytosis of bacteria, processing of antigens derived from intracellular and extracellular pathogens, activation of T cells with clonal expansion (proliferation) and production of cytokines that elicit effector cell functions such as antibody production and killing cell activity. Inappropriate immunologic activity, including inflammation, is a characteristic of many common human disorders. Eicosanoids produced from arachidonic acid have roles in inflammation and regulation of T and B lymphocyte functions. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) also gives rise to eicosanoids and these may have differing properties from those of arachidonic acid-derived eicosanoids. EPA and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) give rise to newly discovered resolvins which are anti-inflammatory and inflammation resolving. Human immune cells are typically rich in arachidonic acid, but arachidonic acid, EPA and DHA contents can be altered through oral administration of EPA and DHA. This results in a changed pattern of production of eicosanoids and probably also of resolvins, although the latter are not well examined in the human context. Changing the fatty acid composition of immune cells also affects phagocytosis, T cell signaling and antigen presentation capability. These effects appear to mediated at the membrane level suggesting important roles of fatty acids in membrane order, lipid raft structure and function, and membrane trafficking. Thus, the fatty acid composition of human immune cells influences their function and the cell membrane contents of arachidonic acid, EPA and DHA are important. Fatty acids influence immune cell function through a variety of complex mechanisms and these mechanisms are now beginning to be unraveled.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Arachidonic Acid / metabolism
  • Cell Membrane / metabolism
  • Docosahexaenoic Acids / metabolism
  • Eicosapentaenoic Acid / metabolism
  • Fatty Acids, Omega-3 / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Immune System / metabolism
  • Inflammation / metabolism
  • Lipid Metabolism / immunology*
  • T-Lymphocytes / immunology*
  • T-Lymphocytes / metabolism


  • Fatty Acids, Omega-3
  • Docosahexaenoic Acids
  • Arachidonic Acid
  • Eicosapentaenoic Acid