A group of American researchers have found that a type of stomach fat that was previously thought to be of little use may instead be vital in regulation of the immune system.
Scientists believe that the new finding could lead to new drugs being developed for organ transplant patients and patients with auto-immune diseases such as lupus and Crohn's disease.
The stomach fat identified by the researchers at Loyola University Chicago is the omentum, a sheet of fatty tissue attached to the stomach that hangs down in front of the intestines, providing a protective cushion.
The omentum is one of the main fat-storage depots in the body and thickens as fat accumulates there, expanding the skin depending on how much fat is being carried.
"It is shaped like an apron and can stretch like pizza dough," the Sydney Morning Herald quoted Makio Iwashima, one of the scientists behind the discovery, as saying.
"Although its physiological function was not clearly understood, doctors have known for many years that attaching omentum to damaged organs helped the tissue to heal - a procedure known as 'omentum transposition'" he said.
In the latest research, Iwashima, an associate professor in the university's Department of Microbiology and Immunology and his team demonstrated using a mouse model, that omentum contains three types of cells that play critical roles in tissue healing: adult stem cells, cells that reduce acute inflammation, and cells that prevent unnecessary immune responses.
"We now have evidence that the omentum is not just fat sitting in the belly," Iwashima said.
"Based on these data, we propose that the major function of omentum is to recruit and expand cells that specialize in tissue healing and regeneration.
"We think our findings will help the development of effective methods to promote tissue healing and reduce unwanted immune responses that cause autoimmune disorders or rejection of transplanted organs," he said.
It is hoped that in the future new drugs can be developed with fewer side effects than the immune-suppressing drugs, which are currently available.
However, if you are carrying more belly fat than you desire or is good for you then a healthy diet and exercise is recommended.