Professor finds chemicals to treat type 2 diabetes


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Photo by Willy Mellott |

Ilya Raskin, a plant biology and pathology professor, shares his research on chemicals in blueberries last night on Douglass campus. Some nutrients found in the fruit may help reduce blood glucose levels in humans. 


Blueberries could help treat type 2 diabetes, said Ilya Raskin, a University professor of plant biology and pathology.

Blueberries contain chemical compounds called bioflavonoids, which lower blood glucose levels in mice and humans, he said yesterday at a Department of Nutritional Sciences lecture on Douglass campus.

Bioflavonoids are part of a larger group of plant chemicals called phytochemicals—known for their disease-preventative properties—which Raskin studies.

But using blueberries to treat diabetes is problematic because of how much sugar they contain.

“We think blueberries are good for you, but there’s a lot of sugar in them,” he said. “We’ve been working on ways to separate the benefits of blueberries from the sugars.”

Through technology provided by a company called Nutrasorb, which develops health-boosting food and ingredients from natural chemicals in fruits and vegetables, Raskin used soy protein isolate — a highly refined or purified form of soy protein — to separate the fruit’s beneficial nutrients and make it into a paste, he said. The paste can be absorbed into smoothies, cereal and other snacks without affecting flavor.

“Blueberry-growers have done tremendous [work with] scientists,” he said. “Their effect is more than just antioxidants.”

Raskin studied mice that were fed a diet high in fat and sugar until they grew overweight and developed insulin resistance. This condition is associated with type 2 diabetes, where the body fails to eliminate sugar from the bloodstream properly.

When Raskin fed the mice the bioflavonoids, he said their blood sugar dropped dramatically and insulin sensitivity increased. Raskin said many researchers have performed similar tests in humans.

“It can definitely [help diabetes]. A lot of people studied blueberries and diabetes, and there have been clinical trials done,” he said.

Raskin’s colleagues who watched his presentation met his ideas with both appreciation and skepticism.

“What he’s doing is isolating something, but more importantly identifying something that works,” said Malcolm Watford, a professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences.

Watford said Raskin’s treatment with extracts on mice is unique to the science world, but he is not sure they are the best specimens for research in this case.

“I raised the issue because I don’t think we know if the mouse is diabetic,” he said.

Paul Breslin, a University professor of nutritional sciences, said many scientists study the health benefits of phytochemicals, but in a way unlike Raskin’s.

For Raskin to incorporate technologies like Nutrasorb, which trap these chemicals in safer ways, is more expansive than what most scientists do, he said.

Breslin also praised Raskin for a program he helped the University establish in 2004, the Global Institute for BioExploration (GIBEX), that sends people all over the world to teach others how to conduct research similar to his for their own purposes.

“The last part of his talk is really amazing in that he’s trying to give people the technologies to take their own plants and their own technique and make biomedical discoveries on their own,” Breslin said.

GIBEX equips locals with innovative and cheap drug-discovery tools to suit the needs of a given country, Raskin said.

The program focuses on the practice of “bioprospecting,” or searching for useful compounds in plants without removing any natural resources, Raskin said.

“The whole idea of GIBEX was to absolutely change the idea of bioprospecting,” he said. “I think it’s growing much faster than I can manage it.”


By Matthew Matilsky

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