JAN 14, 2022 7:00 AM PST

No, It's Not Just Insulin That Regulates Blood Sugar

WRITTEN BY: Tara Fernandez

In a research breakthrough, scientists have found a hormone secreted by fat cells that plays a similar role to insulin, quickly bringing blood glucose levels back to baseline. This is a giant leap forward in the hunt for potent and effective diabetes management strategies and paves the way for exciting discoveries around the untold secrets of the metabolism.

The hormone insulin is thought to have originated over a billion years ago in our evolutionary history. It is produced in specialized cells of the pancreas and works in conjunction with another hormone called glucagon to balance blood glucose levels. After a meal, insulin stops blood sugar from spiking too high, while glucagon prevents it from dropping to dangerously low levels.

Now, scientists have brought forward a third player: FGF1, a hormone that brings down blood glucose by pumping the brakes on the breakdown of fat. The discovery of FGF1 is particularly significant for treating individuals suffering from insulin resistance, a condition where the body no longer responds to insulin.

Ronald Evans, who led the study, said that identifying this second glucose-lowering hormone helps us better understand how energy stores are regulated in the body. When glucose isn't efficiently shuttled away to the muscles and fat tissue (as in individuals with insulin resistance), fat tissue is broken down via lipolysis and raises circulating fatty acid levels. This then triggers a cascade of potentially-harmful metabolic events: signaling the liver to churn out even more glucose and causing fatty acids to gather in the organs, where they worsen insulin resistance.

Some studies estimate that around 40 percent of people over the age of 50 are at risk of developing insulin resistance, which can lead to prediabetes and type 2 diabetes. Healthy eating, exercise, and eliminating alcohol and smoking are the first suggested approaches to managing the condition. However, new therapeutic strategies may help patients with insulin resistance to regain control of their metabolic health.

In their study, Evans and colleagues show that FGF1 has similar metabolic effects as insulin and that injecting FGF1 into mice could reverse insulin resistance and lower blood glucose levels.

Michael Downes, a scientist on the team, said: "The unique ability of FGF1 to induce sustained glucose lowering in insulin-resistant diabetic mice is a promising therapeutic route for diabetic patients." 

"We hope that understanding this pathway will lead to better treatments for diabetic patients."

About the Author
  • Tara Fernandez has a PhD in Cell Biology and has spent over a decade uncovering the molecular basis of diseases ranging from skin cancer to obesity and diabetes. She currently works on developing and marketing disruptive new technologies in the biotechnology industry. Her areas of interest include innovation in molecular diagnostics, cell therapies, and immunology. She actively participates in various science communication and public engagement initiatives to promote STEM in the community.
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