JAN 13, 2016 6:00 PM PST

Scientists Find Enzyme That Stops the Toxic Effects of Sugar

WRITTEN BY: Julianne Chiaet

Imagine being able to eat a sugary glazed cinnamon roll that wouldn't make you gain weight. While that may seem impossible, a new discovery has brought us one step closer to that dream. 

Researchers at the Université de Montréal have found an enzyme that blocks the toxic effects of sugar in various organs. The discovery could lead to new treatments for obesity and type 2 diabetes. 

Enzymes are proteins that speed up chemical reactions. The discovered enzyme, named glycerol 3-phosphate phosphatase (G3PP), plays a critical role in managing glucose and fat use. Glucose and fatty acids are our cell's main nutrients. Many physiological processes are involved in using glucose and fatty acids, such as the storage of fat in adipose tissue and the breakdown of nutrients for energy production. The disruption of these processes can lead to obesity, type-2 diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases. 

Beta cells sense changes in the blood glucose levels and produce insulin accordingly. Insulin is a hormone that promotes the absorption of glucose from the blood. When a person consumes too much sugar, the beta cells are exposed to excess glucose and fatty acids. Those once-healthy nutrients become toxic to the cell and cause dysfunction. 

Molecule glycerol-3-phosphate is formed when cells use glucose. It is necessary for both energy production and fat formation.  "When glucose is abnormally elevated in the body, [this molecule] reaches excessive levels in cells. [Exaggerated] glycerol-3-phosphate metabolism can damage various tissues. We found that [the discovered enzyme] G3PP is able to break down a great proportion of this excess glycerol phosphate to glycerol and divert it outside the cell. [Thus, the enzyme protects] insulin-producing beta cells of [the] pancreas and various organs from [the] toxic effects of high glucose levels," said biochemist Marc Prentki, co-lead study author. 

The researchers found the enzyme while looking for mechanisms that enabled beta cells to get rid of excess glucose as glycerol. The discovered enzyme is present in all body tissues. 

Finding a “novel enzyme… at the heart of metabolism in all mammalian tissues” is extremely rare, Prentki said. “This enzyme will [likely] be incorporated in biochemistry textbooks.” 

The research team is currently working to find "small molecule activators of G3PP" to treat diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. The unique target of the drugs will make it the first of its kind. However, there is a long way to go before those drugs can hit the market. Researchers still need to confirm the treatment in several animal models before developing a drug for human use. 

The findings were published January 11, 2016, in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Sources: University of Montreal Hospital Research Centre Press Release via EurekAlert!, study published in PNAS, New York State OMH
About the Author
  • Julianne (@JuliChiaet) covers health and medicine for LabRoots. Her work has been published in The Daily Beast, Scientific American, and MailOnline. While primarily a science journalist, she has also covered culture and Japanese organized crime. She is the New York Board Representative for the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA). • To read more of her writing, or to send her a message, go to Jchiaet.com
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