Leptin is mainly produced in white adipose tissue and acts both at distant sites and locally at the tissue from which it originates. The cellular and subcellular localization of leptin and its receptor (Ob-receptor [Ob-R]) and their relationship to various stages of fat cell maturation have not been characterized as yet. Therefore, we analyzed leptin and Ob-R by using reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction, immunohistochemistry, and ultrastructural immunogold labeling in human white adipose tissue and in human adipocyte cell cultures at early and late stages of differentiation. Both leptin and its receptor were present in mature unilocular fat cells. The thin cytoplasmic rim of the adipocytes exhibited the strongest expression of both leptin and Ob-R. At early stages of differentiating human adipocytes, leptin was mainly expressed in multilocular preadipocytes, whereas the Ob-R was found predominantly on fibroblast-like cells. Other cellular components of human white adipose tissue were characterized by anti-CD31 for endothelial cells, anti-CD68 for macrophages, and antibodies specifically labeling B-cells and T-cells. In addition to fat cells, endothelial cells were immunopositive for the full-length leptin receptor. On the ultrastructural level, leptin was mainly found attached to cellular membranes and in small alveolate vesicle-like structures in the cytoplasm of adipocytes. Leptin was also present on the cell membranes of endothelial cells and macrophages. We conclude that the expression of the Ob-R in human white adipose tissue is not restricted to adipocytes but is present in resident endothelial and immune cells. Ultrastructural localization studies revealed an association of leptin with cell membranes and small vesicles. The cellular and subcellular distribution of leptin and its receptor suggests an important autocrine and paracrine role for leptin in human adipose tissue.

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