Obesity and its associated comorbidities (for example, diabetes mellitus and hepatic steatosis) contribute to approximately 2.5 million deaths annually and are among the most prevalent and challenging conditions confronting the medical profession. Neurotensin (NT; also known as NTS), a 13-amino-acid peptide predominantly localized in specialized enteroendocrine cells of the small intestine and released by fat ingestion, facilitates fatty acid translocation in rat intestine, and stimulates the growth of various cancers. The effects of NT are mediated through three known NT receptors (NTR1, 2 and 3; also known as NTSR1, 2, and NTSR3, respectively). Increased fasting plasma levels of pro-NT (a stable NT precursor fragment produced in equimolar amounts relative to NT) are associated with increased risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and mortality; however, a role for NT as a causative factor in these diseases is unknown. Here we show that NT-deficient mice demonstrate significantly reduced intestinal fat absorption and are protected from obesity, hepatic steatosis and insulin resistance associated with high fat consumption. We further demonstrate that NT attenuates the activation of AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK) and stimulates fatty acid absorption in mice and in cultured intestinal cells, and that this occurs through a mechanism involving NTR1 and NTR3 (also known as sortilin). Consistent with the findings in mice, expression of NT in Drosophila midgut enteroendocrine cells results in increased lipid accumulation in the midgut, fat body, and oenocytes (specialized hepatocyte-like cells) and decreased AMPK activation. Remarkably, in humans, we show that both obese and insulin-resistant subjects have elevated plasma concentrations of pro-NT, and in longitudinal studies among non-obese subjects, high levels of pro-NT denote a doubling of the risk of developing obesity later in life. Our findings directly link NT with increased fat absorption and obesity and suggest that NT may provide a prognostic marker of future obesity and a potential target for prevention and treatment.
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