Researchers have isolated a protein that in the future may stop the development of diabetes.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 36.5 percent of the American population are obese.
Type 2 diabetes is also widespread, with the CDC reporting that more than 29 million Americans are living with the condition, and an additional 86 million have prediabetes.
Diabetes can lead to severe complications, and the illness is the seventh leading cause of death in the U.S.
While there is currently no cure for diabetes, scientists are investigating several possibilities, including pancreas transplantation and genetic manipulation.
Researchers at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium may have made a breakthrough by discovering a protein that could soon halt the development of diabetes and obesity in humans.
Researching the bacteria Akkermansia in mice
For the past 10 years, researchers led by Patrice Cani, a WELBIO researcher at the Louvain Drug Research Institute of the University of Louvain, and Willem de Vos, professor at the University of Wageningen in the Netherlands, have been working on a bacterium called Akkermansia muciniphila.
Akkermansia are one of the most common bacteria, accounting for 1-5 percent of the gut microbiota.
Cani and team have shown, for the first time, that Akkermansia muciniphila may be crucial in the fight against obesity and type 2 diabetes.
Researchers hypothesized about the key role of Akkermansia in 2007 and confirmed their hypothesis in 2013. Until then, it was known that type 2 diabetes and obesity are characterized by altered gut microbiota, inflammation, and gut barrier disruption, but the exact mechanism responsible for this was unknown.
In their 2013 study, Cani and team isolated Akkermansia muciniphila - a mucin-degrading bacterium that resides in the mucus layer. They noticed that levels of this bacterium were lower in obese rodents. They also administered an Akkermansia-based treatment to mice, which reversed several metabolic disorders.
Studying pasteurized Akkermansia in humans
Now, the researchers have decided to produce Akkermansia and test it on humans. The trials have been ongoing since December 2015 at the Saint-Luc clinics of the University of Louvain.
For now, researchers have shown that using the bacterium on humans is safe. However, the scientists still need to prove that the positive effects demonstrated in mice in 2013 also apply to humans.
During their research, Cani and team accidentally discovered that pasteurization has positive effects on Akkermansia:
"Unexpectedly, we discovered that pasteurization of A. muciniphila enhanced its capacity to reduce fat mass development, insulin resistance and dyslipidemia in mice."
Scientists were trying to facilitate the production of Akkermansia by finding a way to make it inactive without destroying its properties. Pasteurization was one such way, as it makes the bacterium stable and easier to administer.
However, after pasteurizing it, researchers found that its efficacy had doubled. Akkermansia became so effective that it prevented the development of obesity and type 2 diabetes in mice.
This is the first time that scientists have shown pasteurized Akkermansia effective against these metabolic conditions in mice.
Results were published in the journal Nature Medicine.
The benefits of the purified protein Amuc_1100*
In an attempt to understand why the bacterium was made so effective by pasteurization, researchers isolated a protein that can be found on the outer membrane of the bacterium.
Since pasteurization kills off everything in the bacterium except the protein, researchers hypothesized that this protein might be the reason for its effectiveness.
With the help of genetic engineering, scientists produced the protein Amuc_1100* and tested it on rodents.
Results showed the protein Amuc_1100* was as effective in stopping diabetes and obesity as pasteurized Akkermansia.
As the authors note, their study demonstrates that Akkermansia muciniphila "retains its efficacy when grown on a synthetic medium" and is "compatible with human administration."
Amuc_1100* is known to be good for the immune system, as it blocks toxins from reaching the bloodstream and strengthens the immunity of the intestines.
In the near future, the protein Amuc_1100* could help prevent diabetes and obesity in humans, and later on it might also treat other conditions, such as inflammation of the intestine caused by stress, alcoholism, liver disease, or cancer.