Antioxidant may protect type 1 diabetics from health complications

An antioxidant commonly found in strawberries may hold the key to preventing health complications related to type 1 diabetes, according to a new study out of the Salk Institute.

The researchers believe that a medication derived from this compound could lead to major improvements in the quality of life of diabetics.

Fisetin is found in many fruits and vegetables, but its most abundant source is strawberries. The researchers reported in the journal PLoS ONE that high levels of this nutrient warded off diabetic complications in mice genetically engineered to have the metabolic disorder.

"This manuscript describes for the first time a drug that prevents both kidney and brain complications in a type 1 diabetes mouse model," said David Schubert, PhD, who led the investigation. "Moreover, it demonstrates the probable molecular basis of how the therapeutic is working."

For the study, researchers fed a group of mice bred to have high levels of blood sugar chow that was enriched with fisetin. The animals experienced no improvement in their blood sugar levels, but the researchers noted that there was a dramatic reduction in the number of diabetes-related complications.

The fisetin-fed mice were significantly less likely to develop a kidney-enlarging condition known as hypertrophy and they had lower levels of protein in their urine, which is a sign of kidney damage. Additionally, these animals were less likely to suffer neurological complications, including nerve damage that may lead to anxiety.

Further testing on the mice showed that they had lower levels of advanced glycation end-products, or AGEs, in their blood. AGEs are sugars affixed to proteins. Previous studies have connected higher circulating AGE blood levels with most type 1 diabetes complications, including kidney damage, retinopathy, heart diseases, neuropathy and other types of neurological problems.

"We and others have shown that diabetes may be a risk factor for Alzheimer's disease, making identification of a safe prophylactic like fisetin highly significant," Schubert said.

However, there was one catch. If a person were to try to consume fisetin levels equivalent to what the lab mice were fed, he or she would need to eat somewhere in the neighborhood of 37 strawberries a day.

While this could be impractical, the researchers said that it may be possible to develop medications that deliver large doses of the nutrient, allowing individuals with type 1 diabetes to reap the benefits of fisetin.