EDMOND — A study by researchers at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center is shedding new light on how diabetes affects the body.
Dr. Michael Ihnat, an assistant professor of cell biology and director of the medical pharmacology course at the OUHSC, has completed research showing cells actually have a “memory” of the stress brought on by high glucose levels, a hallmark of diabetes.
Ihnat, along with researchers in Italy and Hungary, have found that cells remained stressed, even after the glucose levels in the cells returned to normal.
“In addition to understanding what causes changes in insulin and glucose in the diabetic patient, we have to understand how high glucose damages normal tissue,” Ihnat said. “If we can better understand it, we can help prevent the damage this (diabetes) causes the patient.”
The first phase of the study began with endothelial cells, those cells that line the blood vessels, growing in Petri dishes. For two weeks, researchers exposed the cells to high levels of glucose. Then for one week they normalized the glucose levels.
Yet, the cells remained just as stressed as they had been in high glucose levels for the entire time, even when glucose levels returned to normal, Ihnat said.
The researchers moved on to tests involving those organs commonly affected by diabetes — the retina of the eye and the kidneys. Again, the organs remained stressed even after one week of normal glucose levels.
Next, Ihnat began to look at what was perpetuating this cellular memory and what could be done to interrupt it. When antioxidants were added after glucose levels were made normal, the team found the memory was indeed interrupted.
In fact, by adding a-lipoic acid, a common antioxidant that can be purchased at many health food stores and drug store chains, the cycle of stress seemed to break, Ihnat said.
“For patients with diabetes this means simply getting their glucose under control is not enough,” he added. “An antioxidant-based therapy combined with glucose control will give more of an advantage and hopefully lessen the chance of getting complications of diabetes.”
The cellular memory phenomenon is expected to occur in patients with both Type I and Type II (adult-onset) diabetes, because high glucose is a hallmark of both diabetes classifications.
Interestingly, Ihnat’s research also found this cellular memory is not unique to glucose. It also occurred with another stress, decreased oxygen.
Ihnat’s research project started about a year and a half ago with funding from the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
It is being conducted in conjunction with the Diabetes Center at the OUHSC, currently in its beginning phases.
Dr. Tim Lyons, OUHSC professor and medical director of the Oklahoma Diabetes Center, introduced Ihnat to renowned diabetes researcher Dr. Antonio Ceriello of Italy.
Ihnat, Ceriello and Dr. Casaba Szabo of Hungry conducted the studies, and similar results were observed independently in each country, further strengthening the validity of these studies, Ihnat said.
The study’s first paper is in the final stages of review at The Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences.
(Becky Tallent is a freelance writer for Evergreen Productions Inc. She writes for the University Hospitals Trust & Authority and may be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)