Adipose tissue evolved to efficiently store energy for times of caloric restriction. The large caloric excess common in many Western diets has negated the need for this thrifty function, leaving adipose tissue ill-equipped to handle this increased load. An excess of adipose tissue increases risk for a number of conditions including coronary artery disease, hypertension, dyslipidemias, type 2 diabetes, and even cancer. Indeed, the ability of the adipocyte to function properly when engorged with lipid can lead to lipid accumulation in other tissues, reducing their ability to function and respond normally. The role of adipose tissue as an endocrine organ capable of secreting a number of adipose tissue-specific or enriched hormones, known as adipokines, is gaining appreciation. The normal balance of these adipose tissue secretory proteins is perturbed in obesity. Paradoxically, the lack of normal adipose tissue, as seen in cases of lipodystrophy and lipoatrophy, is also associated with pathologic sequelae similar to what is seen with obesity. The pathologic findings associated with lack of adipose tissue, largely due to inability to properly store lipids, may also be due to a lack of adipokines. In this review, we highlight the role of adipose tissue as an endocrine organ focusing on some of the recent advances in the identification and pharmacological characterization of adipokines as well as their regulation in the context of obesity and insulin-resistant states.
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