Discovery may help diabetes treatments

Salk scientists find that a long-overlooked protein may be the gateway to the storage and burning of fat

April 24, 2012

LA JOLLA, CA—Humans are built to hunger for fat, packing it on during times of feast and burning it during periods of famine. But when deluged by foods rich in fat and sugar, the modern waistline often far exceeds the need to store energy for lean times, and the result has been an epidemic of diabetes, heart disease and other obesity-related problems.

Now, scientists at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies have identified the linchpin of fat metabolism, a protein known as fibroblast growth factor 1 (FGF1), which may open new avenues in the treatment of diabetes.

In a paper published April 22 in Nature, the Evans lab reports that FGF1 activity is triggered by a high-fat diet and that mice lacking the protein swiftly develop diabetes. This suggests that FGF1 is crucial to maintaining the body’s sensitivity to insulin and normal levels of sugar in the blood.

“Because humans are good at storing fat during times of plenty, we are also excellent at surviving times of famine,” says Ronald M. Evans, a professor in Salk’s Gene Expression Laboratory and lead author of the paper. “The fat tissues of our body are like batteries, providing us with a steady source of energy when food is scarce. FGF1 governs the expansion and contraction of fat and thus controls the ebb and flow of energy throughout our body.”

Obesity rates have soared in the United States in recent decades, with more than one third of U.S. adults and 17 percent of children and adolescents now considered obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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