WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Scientists have identified a member of a new class of hormones produced by body fat that they think could lead to fresh approaches to combat diabetes and other conditions related to obesity.
The hormone prevents the liver from accumulating fat and enhances the body’s ability to control glucose, scientists led by Gokhan Hotamisligil of the Harvard School of Public Health wrote on Thursday in the journal Cell.
Their work involving the hormone, called palmitoleate, was in mice, but the hormone is also found in people.
While other known hormones are either protein-based or steroid-based, this one is the first example of a class made out of fatty acids, Hotamisligil said. The researchers are calling this new group of hormones lipokines.
Hormones act like the body’s chemical messengers, traveling through the blood to influence cells and organs in processes such as growth and development, metabolism, sex and mood.
If the hormone’s role in people is the same as in mice, it may become a valuable weapon against type 2 diabetes or fatty liver disease, Hotamisligil said.
Scientists previously had known about palmitoleate but had not identified it as a hormone, he said.
“All evidence is pointing that it’s coming from fat cells,” Hotamisligil said in a telephone interview.
One of its roles is to communicate with the liver and prevent it from accumulating fat, which can occur as people become obese, he said. It also encourages muscle to take up glucose from blood and dispose of it, he added.
It works almost as well as the hormone insulin at pushing sugar out of the blood, Hotamisligil said. Insulin regulates the absorption of sugar into the cells.
People with diabetes have blood sugar levels that are too high. Those with type 2 diabetes, the form closely related to obesity, are resistant to the effects of insulin or produce too little of it.
The researchers said that as body fat increases, less palmitoleate is produced. So in obese people, the beneficial functions of this hormone in controlling blood sugar levels and preventing fat accumulating in the liver would be diminished.
“When you need it the most, you produce the least,” Hotamisligil said.
Doctors potentially could give palmitoleate to people or come up with ways to stimulate the body to produce more to prevent or improve illnesses like diabetes, Hotamisligil said.
And a simple test looking at blood levels of palmitoleate potentially could be used to signal risk for conditions like diabetes.
The scientists identified palmitoleate as a hormone with the help of scientists from Lipomics Technologies of West Sacramento, California. The company was acquired on Wednesday by Tethys Bioscience Inc of Emeryville, California.
Editing by Maggie Fox and Ross Colvin