Drugs could mimic gut bacteria benefits to treat diabetes

It may be possible to design drugs that mimic the positive health benefits of gut bacteria to treat diseases such as type II diabetes, a new study has found.

It is known that bacteria in the gut can provide positive health benefits, but so far the mechanism by which gut bacteria works has been unclear.

Scientists think one possibility is that gut bacteria, by fermenting starches in food such as oats and pulses, produce compounds called short chain fatty acids (SCFAs). One of these SCFAs is acetic acid – the main component of vinegar.

Once produced, these SCFAs activate specific receptor proteins in our body and these receptors, once activated, can provide health benefits.

In a four-year study, an international team of scientists, led by the University of Glasgow, team used a combination of genetics and pharmacology to see if one of these receptor proteins – called short chain free fatty acid receptor 2 (FFA2) – when activated selectively by drugs, generated responses in the body that underpin the health benefits of gut bacteria.

Andrew Tobin, professor of molecular pharmacology at the University’s Institute of Molecular Cell & Systems Biology, said: “Through a clever genetic trick, we have been able to determine that the levels of glucose in our blood and fat in our bodies can be controlled by gut bacteria.

“This is done via a specific receptor protein in our body, and we believe that the positive health benefits of gut bacteria can be mimicked by drugs that activate this receptor protein.”

Professor Graeme Milligan, Gardiner chair of biochemistry, added: “By generating a genetically-altered mouse that contains a form of FFA2 that can be activated only by a drug, we found that FFA2 can control the speed of food moving through the gut, the release of hormones that can control glucose levels and the release of fat from fat tissue.”

The scientists believe that, not only can FFA2, which is normally activated by acetic acid generated by gut bacteria, control these key processes important for our health and well-being but, importantly, that this receptor protein could be a target for new drugs in diseases where our response to food intake is dysfunctional, such as in type II diabetes.

The paper, ‘Chemogenetics defines receptor-mediated functions of short chain free fatty acids’ is published in Nature Chemical Biology.

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