For the first time, medical researchers have discovered how sucrose — the type of sugar found in soda and other sweetened beverages and foods — increases the risk of diabetes and damages the heart.
In a new study published in the Public Library of Science journal PLOS Genetics, scientists at Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute and Mount Sinai School of Medicine determined sugary foods and drinks trigger a series of biochemical reactions in the body that alter the way cells process sugar to produce energy.
Those changes — in a system known scientifically as the “hexosamine pathway” — increase the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and cardiac arrhythmia.
Although the research involved studies of laboratory fruit flies, the investigators said the processes are the same in human beings and that the findings could point the way to developing new therapies to combat cardiovascular disease.
"Diet-induced heart damage is one of our society's most serious health issues,” said Ross Cagan, a professor at Mount Sinai School of Medicine who helped conduct the study. “Our flies now give us a tool to explore the role of high dietary sugar, and the means to identify treatments in the context of the whole body."
For the study, researchers fed fruit flies a diet high in sucrose and found they showed many classic signs of human type 2 diabetes — including high blood sugar and insulin. In addition, the results showed sucrose increases the rate of diabetes-induced heart problems, including a decline in heart function and an increase in cardiac arrhythmia and fibrosis.
By examining heart cells, the research team was also able to determine that artificially increasing sugar harms the heart by affecting the so-called hexosamine pathway. By contrast, when they specifically blocked this pathway, they were able to prevent some of the high-sucrose induced heart defects, such as cardiac arrhythmias — a finding that may pave the way for new ways to mitigate the impacts of high-sugar diets.
"It's remarkable that we're able to use the fruit fly as a discovery tool for elucidating basic molecular mechanisms, not only of many types of heart disease, but also dietary influences that help us understand what happens in human hearts," said co-researcher Rolf Bodmer, a professor at Sanford-Burnham.
The study was funded, in part, by the National Institutes of Health, the American Diabetes Association, the American Heart Association, the Children's Discovery Institute, and the Ellison Medical Foundation.
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