Mutant worms gorge on sugar and stay lean

"The high-sugar diet that the bacteria ate was the equivalent of a human eating the Western diet," Sean Curran says. (Credit: iStockphoto)

Worms with a specific genetic mutation can consume incredible amounts of sugar without gaining any weight, while regular worms balloon on the same diet.

So far, the research has focused solely on the worm Caenorhabditis elegans and human cells in a petri dish—but the same genetic pathway is found in almost all animals from yeast to humans.

Sean Curran of the University of Southern California, who led the research, plans to test his findings in mice.

“The high-sugar diet that the bacteria ate was the equivalent of a human eating the Western diet,” Curran says, referring to the diet favored by the Western world, characterized by high-fat and high-sugar foods.

Will is work for people?

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The mutant worms have a hyperactive SKN-1 gene, which also exists in humans, where it is called Nrf2. Curran says this suggests the findings might translate.

The Nrf2 protein, a “transcription factor” that binds to a specific sequence of DNA to control the ability of cells to detox or repair damage when exposed to chemically reactive oxygen (a common threat to cells’ well being), has been well studied in mammals.

Pharmaceutical companies have already worked to develop small-molecule drugs that target Nrf2, in hopes that it will produce more antioxidants and slow aging.

Cancer risk

Though the promise of a pill to help control your body’s response to food is enticing, it is not without risk, Curran notes. Increased Nrf2 function has been linked to aggressive cancers.

“Perhaps it is a matter of timing and location,” Curran adds. “If we can acutely activate Nrf2 in specific tissues when needed then maybe we can take advantage of its potential benefits.”

The National Institutes of Healtj, the Ellison Medical Foundation, and the American Federation of Aging Research funded the work, which was published in the journal Nature Communications.

Source: USC