Too weird to be true? by Emily Burns
It’s April Fool’s Day today, and we couldn’t let an opportunity to celebrate weird and wonderful diabetes research pass us by. Here’s a few diabetes research facts that we bet you can’t believe.
Broccoli might be able to protect the brain
We’ve all heard the latest superfood claims, and broccoli is often in there somewhere. But Professor Rory McCrimmon, at the University of Dundee, is looking at the potential benefits of a specific antioxidant chemical (called sulforaphane) found within the delicious green vegetable.
Prof McCrimmon has been awarded a Diabetes UK research grant to investigate whether high blood glucose levels and regular hypos contribute to accelerated aging of the brain – something that’s seen in some people with Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes.
Aging in the brain is linked to problems with memory and thinking, and an increased risk of dementia. We don’t fully understand why, but studies suggest that changes to the structure of the brain linked to aging are seen in people with diabetes at a much younger age than those without.
Prof McCrimmon is looking at the effects of high blood glucose levels and hypos on memory and aging of the brain in rats and mice. His team want to find out exactly why the changes happen, and if they can be prevented using an antioxidant chemical commonly found in vegetables like broccoli.
We’ll hopefully find out if people with recurrent high blood levels that experience hypos are susceptible to changes within the brain – this is a particularly important question for children, who have developing brains that are more vulnerable than an adult’s. The study could also reveal a way to improve the brain’s defence systems and protect people with diabetes from this kind of damage in the future.
Let’s see if Prof McCrimmon uncovers another reason to eat our greens.
A drug for Type 2 diabetes came from lizard spit
I know, I know – but it’s true! Exenatide is a drug that helps to lower blood glucose levels without causing weight gain in people with Type 2 diabetes. It works by increasing the amount of insulin released from the pancreas and reducing the action of a hormone called glucagon. Together, this reduces the amount of glucose absorbed from the stomach, keeping blood glucose levels down and suppressing appetite.
Exenatide was launched in the UK in 2007, off the back of some pretty cool research. Scientists found that the pink and black Gila monster has a chemical in its saliva (called exendin-4) that’s similar to the human hormone GLP-1. In those without Type 2 diabetes, GLP-1 triggers the production of insulin when blood glucose levels get too high, but this signal is either missing or too weak in people with Type 2 diabetes.
Scientists made a synthetic version of this lizard spit chemical, and it proved to be very successful in clinical trials, helping people with Type 2 diabetes to control their blood glucose levels adequately.
Exenatide is now used by people with Type 2 diabetes around the world, all thanks to that friendly lizard.
Frogs might spawn a new treatment for Type 2 diabetes
Following on from the Gila monster revelation, researchers at the University of Ulster are testing whether bits of proteins from amphibians (like frogs, newts and salamanders) can promote insulin release and reduce blood glucose levels for people with Type 2 diabetes.
So far, they’ve found four promising protein fragments that are found naturally in frogs.
Specifically, the Volcano Clawed Frog, the Chinese Edible Frog and the Chiricahua Leopard Frog. (Legit names).
In this Diabetes UK-funded study, Dr Abdel-Wahab and his team are developing synthetic versions of these proteins and studying their ability to increase insulin production in mice. This way, they’ll be able to look at exactly how the protein fragments work and evaluate whether they have any potential to be used as drugs for Type 2 diabetes.
More effective drugs would be of enormous benefit to people with Type 2 diabetes, and the fact that they might come from such an epically-named frog makes it even more special.
Could algae save the day?
Specifically, brown algae. It’s not much to look at, but it’s an important part of many a marine environment. Now, it’s stepping up and giving the frogs and lizards a run for their money in the field of islet transplantations.
Islet transplants are used to treat people with Type 1 diabetes that have lost their ability to sense hypos (low blood glucose levels that can have very serious consequences). New islets that can produce insulin are transplanted into a person with Type 1 diabetes, with often transformational results.
The current challenge lies with the fact that the islet cells don’t always survive for very long; they are attacked by the immune system and die off. Researchers in America are using a compound called alginate, found in brown algae, to try and wrap up the islet cells and protect them from the immune system.
Current studies are happening in mice, so we’ll have to wait and see if the ugly duckling of the sea is behind the next Type 1 diabetes breakthrough.
This blog is brought to you by Dr Emily Burns, Research Communications Manager at Diabetes UK.
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