By Kayla McKiski
"We were able to demonstrate that fat within the belly is rapidly degraded during acute [sudden-onset] pancreatitis, but not during diverticulitis [another condition that causes abdominal pain]," said researcher Vijay Singh. He's a gastroenterologist at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix.
The catalyst for that degradation is an enzyme called PNLIP, he said. It can spur creation of fatty acids, which Singh said can cause vital body systems -- including circulation, kidney and lung function -- to fail.
Pancreatitis is inflammation in the pancreas, a gland that is located in the upper abdomen. The pancreas produces enzymes that help digestion and hormones that help regulate the way your body processes sugar (glucose), according to the Mayo Clinic.
In addition, the researchers found that unsaturated fats, such as the oleic acid in olive oil -- which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers safer for human consumption -- also increases the risk of organ failure.
"Our findings open the door to new therapeutic targets to treat pancreatitis and thereby prevent organ failure," Singh said in a Mayo Clinic news release. "By inhibiting PNLIP, we may be able to prevent severe pancreatitis, avoid prolonged hospitalizations and save lives."
The study was published online recently in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.