The monounsaturated fatty acid oleate is the major physiological toxic free fatty acid for human beta cells

Nutr Diabetes. 2017 Dec 21;7(12):305. doi: 10.1038/s41387-017-0005-x.


Free fatty acids (FFAs) can cause glucose intolerance and diabetes. Lipotoxicity to the pancreatic beta cells is considered to be a major underlying cause for this phenomenon. The aim of this study was to analyse the toxicity profile of FFAs in the human EndoC-βH1 beta-cell line and to compare the results with isolated rat and human islets with special reference to the physiologically most prevalent FFAs palmitic acid (PA) and oleic acid (OA). Toxicity after a 2-day incubation with the different FFAs was analysed by the caspase-3 assay and confirmed by the propidium iodide and annexin V staining tests. The long-chain saturated PA (C16:0) and the monounsaturated OA (C18:1) were both toxic to human EndoC-βH1 beta cells and pseudoislets, as well as to rat islets, and, as confirmed in a pilot experiment, also to human islets. Furthermore, OA provided no protection against the toxicity of PA. Likewise, elaidic acid (EA, the trans isomer of OA; trans-OA) was significantly toxic, in contrast to the non-metabolisable analogues methylated PA (MePA) and methylated OA (MeOA). Fatty acids with a chain length < C16 were not toxic in EndoC-βH1 beta cells. Caspase-3 was also activated by linoleic acid (LA)(C18:2) but not by γ-linolenic acid (γ-LNA)(C18:3). Overall, only long-chain FFAs with chain lengths > C14, which generate hydrogen peroxide in the peroxisomal beta-oxidation, were toxic. This conclusion is also supported by the toxicity of the branched-chain FFA pristanic acid, which is exclusively metabolised in the peroxisomal beta-oxidation. The lack of a protective effect of the monounsaturated fatty acid OA has important consequences for a beta-cell protective lipid composition of a diet. A cardioprotective diet with a high OA content does not fulfil this requirement.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Caspase 3 / metabolism
  • Cell Line
  • Fatty Acids, Monounsaturated / toxicity*
  • Humans
  • Insulin-Secreting Cells / drug effects*
  • Insulin-Secreting Cells / metabolism
  • Oleic Acid / toxicity*
  • Palmitic Acid / toxicity*
  • Rats
  • Rats, Inbred Lew


  • Fatty Acids, Monounsaturated
  • Oleic Acid
  • Palmitic Acid
  • Caspase 3