Scientists have added a new type of fat to the list of “good” fats that help keep us healthy. So healthy, in fact, that this new fat may play a role in eventually developing treatments to address Type 2 diabetes as well as inflammatory diseases like Crohn's disease and rheumatoid arthritis, according to the research team behind the discovery.
The fatty acid, called “FAHFA” (short for fatty acid hydroxyl acids), can be found in human fat cells as well as other human cells, according to lead author Barbara Kahn, a molecular endocrinologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and a professor at Harvard Medical School. FAHFA actually helps cells secrete insulin (a hormone that helps regulate blood sugar) and it also improves insulin’s interactions with tissues in the body. Those two mechanisms are crucial to helping keep blood sugar levels down, which keeps Type 2 diabetes and obesity at bay.
Diabetes affects an estimated 347 million people around the world, and 90 percent of them have type 2 diabetes. Finding a cure is urgent, said Kahn, considering that patients are developing the disease at younger ages than ever before.
"We’re seeing a lot of more of it in youngsters -- in pediatric and adolescent populations,” said Kahn in a phone interview with HuffPost. "They may be getting blindness, kidney disease, amputations, cardiovascular disease and neurologic disease in their 40s, whereas we used to see those thing only later in life. It’s a major problem."
In a study published Oct. 9 in the journal Cell, Kahn and her team fed a FAHFA solution to insulin resistant, obese mice. As a result, their blood sugar levels plummeted in 30 minutes. Kahn also found that if mice had a lot of FAHFA in their system, the animals were better able to regulate their blood sugar levels when drinking a sugary solution.
Kahn and her colleagues decided to extend their FAHFA study to humans. They tested blood and fat samples from both insulin-resistant people who were at risk for Type 2 diabetes and a control group of healthy people who are insulin sensitive. People with high levels of naturally-occurring FAHFA were strongly correlated with insulin sensitivity, while low levels were linked to insulin resistance. Insulin resistant people, for instance, typically had 50 to 75 percent lower levels of FAHFA in their fat and blood than people with normal insulin sensitivity, which is a promising sign that FAHFA is somehow related to insulin production and blood sugar regulation.
If Kahn is able to demonstrate causality in humans, it could mean a breakthrough for type 2 diabetes care.
"The implications of the data in the paper are that raising the lipids in insulin resistant people, either by giving the lipids themselves, or by manipulating their metabolism in the body, could potentially have a therapeutic effect on diabetes control,” explained Kahn.
“I think its tremendously exciting that there's still molecules in the body, be they hormones or lipids, that are as yet undiscovered and that may offer new treatment approaches,” added Kahn, suggesting that she planned to begin initial trials in humans in the next couple of years.