Scientists may be able to control sugars that lead to diabetes, obesity

September 25, 2012

A study published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry shows that scientists may be able to turn on or off the enzymes responsible for processing starchy foods into sugars in the human digestive system. They believe this finding will allow them to better control those processes in people with type 2 diabetes and obesity.

According to Bruce Hamaker, Professor of Food Science and Director of the Whistler Center for Carbohydrate Research at Purdue University, the four small intestine enzymes, called alpha-glucosidases, are responsible for generating glucose from starch digestion. Each enzyme functions differently, breaking down starches into different sugars at different rates. Someone missing one or more of those enzymes creates glucose improperly.

Influx of glucose to the blood increases insulin release from the pancreas, which allows the body to remove the sugar. When the body’s tissues can’t respond well to insulin, the blood sugar is not lowered, a situation seen in type 2 diabetics. Even in non-diabetics, excess sugars not burned by the body as energy may be stored as fat, an issue for people prone to obesity.

“In diabetics, you don’t want this rollercoaster of blood-glucose levels. Their bodies can’t regulate glucose that well,” said Hamaker. “If you can selectively inhibit these enzymes, it opens up the possibility of moderating glucose to the body as well as directing glucose release into different parts of the small intestines for certain physiologic responses.”

Hamaker and his colleagues conducted the inhibition studies on starch degradation products and the alpha-glucosidase enzymes in a simulated gastrointestinal tract system. The inhibitors were able to selectively inhibit the enzymes, a process they have called “toggling,” and could lead to several solutions for diabetics or those prone to obesity.

Next, the researcher will work to understand how the inhibitors control the intestinal enzymes and refine their understanding of when and where the enzymes should be controlled for the best results.