According to the new research by a Berlin research team from the Experimental and Clinical Research Center (ECRC), the fatty acid propionate helps defend against the effects of high blood pressure, including atherosclerosis and heart tissue remodeling. Gut bacteria produce the substance which calms the immune cells that drive up blood pressure from natural dietary fiber.
ECRC is a joint institution of the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC) and Charité — Universitätsmedizin Berlin.
The research says that beneficial gut microbes can produce metabolites from dietary fiber, including a fatty acid called propionate. This substance protects against the harmful consequences of high blood pressure. Their study has been published in advance online in the journal Circulation.
The researchers fed propionate to mice with elevated blood pressure. Afterwards, the animals had less pronounced damage to the heart or abnormal enlargement of the organ, making them less susceptible to cardiac arrhythmia. Vascular damage, such as atherosclerosis, also decreased in mice.
Professor Dominik N. Müller, MDC researcher and research group leader “Propionate works against a range of impairments in cardiovascular function caused by high blood pressure. This may be a promising treatment option, particularly for patients who have too little of this fatty acid.”
Dr. Nicola Wilck and Hendrik Bartolomaeus from the ECRC, who have been working together on the project for nearly five years said, “Our study made it clear that the substance takes a detour via the immune system and thus affects the heart and blood vessels.”
The research team triggered heart arrhythmia in 70 percent of the untreated mice through targeted electrical stimuli. However, only one-fifth of the animals treated with the fatty acid were susceptible to an irregular heartbeat. Further investigations with ultrasound, tissue sections, and single-cell analyses showed that propionate also reduced blood pressure-related damage to the animals’ cardiovascular system, significantly increasing their survival rate.
But when researchers deactivated a certain T cell subtype in the mice’s bodies, known as regulatory T cells, the positive effects of propionate disappeared. The immune cells are therefore indispensable for the substance’s beneficial effect.
A research group under Johannes Stegbauer, an adjunct professor at Düsseldorf University Hospital, confirmed the team’s findings in a second animal model.
The results explain why a diet rich in fiber, which has been recommended by nutrition organizations for many years, helps prevent cardiovascular diseases. Whole-grain products and fruits, for example, contain cellulose and inulin fibers, from which gut bacteria produce the beneficial molecules like propionate, a short-chain fatty acid with a backbone of just three carbon atoms.
“Previously, it had not been clear which fatty acid is behind the positive effects and how it works. It might make sense to administer propionate or a chemical precursor directly as a drug”, says Wilck.
The research team now hopes to validate their findings by examining the substance’s effects on human subjects