1 in 11 adults on the planet has diabetes and every six seconds, someone dies from diabetes and related complications. Once upon a time, it might have been considered a lifestyle disease and a problem of the rich, but currently, nearly three-quarters of those living with diabetes are in countries with low or middle income. These are damning numbers, and it is evident that diabetes is becoming a global pandemic.
There are two major types of diabetes: Type 1 diabetes, where the body does not produce any insulin, and Type 2 diabetes, where the insulin produced by the beta cells of the pancreas is not enough or the body does not respond sufficiently to insulin. Insulin helps our body to absorb the glucose present in food and convert it into energy reserves in cells. Hence, when there isn’t enough insulin or when the body isn’t responding to insulin, it causes high levels of glucose to circulate in blood, which in long-term results in damage to different organ systems in the body.
Now, in a fascinating study, scientists from University of Southern California have restored insulin production by pancreatic beta cells and reversed diabetes symptoms in mice by providing them with a Fasting Mimicking Diet (FMD) – a low protein, low sugar diet regimen that tricks the body into believing that it is not eating and thus to stay in fasting mode. FMD activates a series of protective measures to limit energy spending by our body. It has also been shown to reboot the immune system, delays cancer progression, and increase cognition and lifespan in mice. To study the effect of FMD on diabetes, the researchers used a special type of mice that develop symptoms of diabetes including extremely high levels of blood glucose (hyperglycemia) at a young age of around ten weeks. If left untreated, these mice die around the age of four months due to diabetes-related complications. The researchers tried to reverse these harmful effects by treating the mice with FMD. They kept the mice on FMD four days a week and fed them a regular diet the next three days. This diet cycle activated expression of some genes, specifically Ngn3 – a gene involved in pancreatic cell development. After multiple cycles, this diet helped the pancreas to generate sufficient numbers of insulin-producing β cells to rescue the mice from the harmful effects of diabetes. In words of Valter Lango, the lead author of the study, “medically, these findings have the potential to be very important because we’ve shown–at least in mouse models–that you can use diet to reverse the symptoms of diabetes”.
Would such a dieting approach work for human pancreatic cells? To find out, the researchers treated pancreatic islets from either people with Type 1 diabetes or healthy individuals with serum from people who had been on an FMD cycle (serum is typically used as “food” for cells that are grown artificially in petri dishes). They observed “rebooting” in the pancreatic cells from individuals with Type 1 diabetes similar to that in diabetic mice, resulting in increased expression of Ngn3 (along with some other genes involved in glucose metabolism) and insulin secretion by these cells. These results raise the possibility of developing future drugs that target the genes and pathways influenced by FMD. While it is exciting, it might be sometime before this research could benefit humans. However, the scientists involved with the study have suggested that such experiments are already in the works. Previously, Lango and his team had shown in a small clinical trial of 100 individuals that when humans are given FMD, their fasting glucose levels improved and risk factors/ biomarkers associated with diabetes and cardiovascular disease decreased. Upon further validation with more elaborate studies, FMD has the potential to become part of a healthy diet regimen to control diabetes. Until then, while this ‘fasting diet’ may be better than a ‘fast food diet’, we don’t recommend trying it at home. Yet.
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