December 13, 2013
The Surprising Skin-Liver Link
Researchers Susanne Mandrup and Nils Færgeman of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Southern Denmark accidentally stumbled upon a fascinating biological connection while studying something completely different: skin is apparently able to directly communicate with the liver. How did they discover this scientific serendipity, you ask? They did it by coating mice with liquid latex from a sex shop.
It all started with greasy mouse fur. The researchers were working with specimens known as knock-outs, named for a specific fat-binding protien (acyl-CoA) that has been removed (knocked out) from their genetic makeup. Several of the knock-out mice began exhibiting strange symptoms. They were having difficulty weaning from the mother. Their fur was notably greasier than their non-knock-out counterparts. They weren’t gaining as much weight during the weaning period. Fat had been accumulating in the liver. Their skin was losing water too quickly, which also meant they were losing heat. All in all, they weren’t doing very well. At first, they assumed these were simply a result of the knock-out process, but follow-up research ruled out that explanation. To try and isolate the cause, they bred a separate group of mice who only lacked the acyl-CoA in their skin, leaving the appropriate genes intact everywhere else. Despite the presence of the protein in the liver, the results were very similar. The fat was still building up just has it had done with the earlier full-blown knock-outs. The skin remained a constant point of overlap.
As any good scientists would, Mandrup and her team decided to test things from a different angle. They opted for a reverse-engineering approach: to see if they could affect the fat buildup (or lack thereof) by manipulating the skin conditions that they believed caused it in the first place. They started testing with vaseline, coating the rat’s skin to bring water loss down to normal levels. As expected, the build-up in the liver disappeared. However, since vaseline contains fat, it would have been theoretically possible for the mice to have absorbed or ingested it. To eliminate the last vestiges of doubt, they turned to a different liquid sealant: liquid latex. Specifically, blue liquid latex purchased from a nearby sex shop. When they repeated their experiment with this fat-less substitute, they found the same results. Restoring the proper hydration balance to the skin resulted in a sudden decrease of fat accumulation, and it eventually disappeared entirely. The researchers believe the sudden loss of water chilled the mice to the point where their fat cells were breaking down and migrating to the liver, essentially transferring energy from tissue to organ in response to the dermal stimulus.
While there is still quite a ways to go to determine exactly what this could mean for humans, it seems to suggest that taking care of your skin is even more important than before. If your skin and your liver are constantly chatting, then problems with one will certainly affect the other.
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