Pancreatic steatosis in humans: cause or marker of lipotoxicity?

Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2010 Jul;13(4):478-85. doi: 10.1097/MCO.0b013e32833aa1ef.


Purpose of review: Type 2 diabetes mellitus (T2DM) is characterized by impaired insulin secretion. Chronically increased levels of plasma nonesterified fatty acids (NEFA) and triglyceride-rich lipoproteins impair beta-cell function, a process referred to as lipotoxicity. Furthermore, when NEFA supply exceeds metabolic capacity, lipids accumulate in nonadipose tissues, such as pancreatic islets, inducing organ dysfunction. The purpose of this review is to describe the mechanisms underlying lipotoxicity in vitro, to discuss the evidence for lipotoxicity in vivo and to address whether pancreatic lipid accumulation interferes with insulin secretion in humans.

Recent findings: Although numerous in-vitro studies have shown that chronically elevated NEFA levels induce beta-cell dysfunction and apoptosis, studies in humans are less conclusive. It has been acknowledged that concurrent hyperglycaemia amplifies the adverse effects of elevated plasma NEFA levels on beta-cell function; therefore glucolipotoxicity should be the preferred term. Lipid accumulation in pancreatic islets impaired beta-cell secretory capacity in leptin-deficient rodents. In humans, recent studies employing noninvasive magnetic resonance-technology and computed tomography-technology, lipid accumulation in the pancreas was increased in individuals with impaired glucose metabolism and T2DM. However, there was no clear association with beta-cell dysfunction.

Summary: To date, it is difficult to provide evidence that intraislet lipid accumulation truly exists in humans and that it is indeed causal to beta-cell dysfunction. Additional research is warranted to further detail the nature and role of pancreatic lipid content in humans, its consequence for the postulated processes pertinent to glucolipotoxicity and its contribution to the progressive nature of beta-cell dysfunction in prediabetes.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Apoptosis
  • Blood Glucose / metabolism
  • Diabetes Complications / metabolism
  • Diabetes Mellitus, Type 2 / metabolism
  • Fatty Acids, Nonesterified / blood
  • Fatty Acids, Nonesterified / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Hyperglycemia / complications
  • Insulin / metabolism*
  • Insulin Secretion
  • Islets of Langerhans / metabolism
  • Leptin / deficiency
  • Lipid Metabolism Disorders / complications
  • Lipid Metabolism Disorders / physiopathology*
  • Pancreas / metabolism*
  • Pancreatic Diseases / complications
  • Pancreatic Diseases / metabolism*


  • Blood Glucose
  • Fatty Acids, Nonesterified
  • Insulin
  • Leptin