Mapping the lipid universe of cows

Insulin resistance research in cows may have human health implications

periodiCALS, Vol. 9, Issue 1, 2019

Joseph McFadden, right, assistant professor in the Department of Animal Science, inspects a newborn calf with graduate student William Myers at the Harford Animal Science Teaching and Research Center. Photo by Justin James Muir

As diabetes cases—particularly gestational and Type 2 diabetes—steadily increase in Americans, research into what causes insulin resistance in cows is holding promise as a way to inform care for cows and humans alike.

Cows do not develop diabetes, but they do develop a form of insulin resistance. This serves the important purpose of supporting milk production; however, if uncontrolled it may impair the health of the animal and dramatically reduce fertility and longevity. The swirl of complex lipids—fat-like substances known in the aggregate as the lipidome—in cows holds clues to the way insulin resistance develops. Joseph McFadden, assistant professor and the Northeast Agribusiness and Feed Alliance Partners Sesquicentennial Fellow in Dairy Cattle Biology, is using the analytical technology mass spectrometry-based lipidomics to biochemically map hundreds of complex lipids inside cows. By studying this constellation of lipids, McFadden has been able pinpoint ceramide, a known causal agent of insulin resistance. 

When cows develop their own form of insulin resistance, their ceramide levels are elevated. If ceramide rings familiar, it’s because it is sometimes found in shampoo for its moisturizing properties. In cows, McFadden believes the molecule is driving a process that contributes to milk synthesis. Understanding it better could improve their milk production and overall health.

“We’re testing different pharmacological and primarily nutritional approaches to modulate ceramide supply. With that, we hope to influence sensitivity and milk production,” McFadden said. “This is opening new avenues to keep cows healthy and productive.” 

The lipid ceramide is also found in humans and Type 2 diabetics and might be part of the innate physiology of all mammals, McFadden said. Ceramide is being used as a diagnostic tool for cardiovascular disease and is considered a diagnostic and prognostic tool for diabetes, too.

“Although we study the dairy cow, we are also actively interested in determining whether ceramide is a predictor for diabetes in humans,” he said.

McFadden said there is promising research for humans and cows suggesting that through diet, ceramide production can be controlled. Using livestock models to study human conditions is “something we should do more of,” said McFadden. Though his primary research is on cows, he hopes the biomedical community can learn from some of his work.