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Native plants may hold answers for chronic illnesses like diabetes

8 April 2020

University of Waikato researchers say native plant extracts may hold the answers to treating complications in patients with chronic illnesses such as diabetes, after discovering people with the diseases also present with high levels of a protein that causes inflammation in the body.

Dr Ryan Martinus and his group are testing some of New Zealand’s native plants to see which ones are active against the protein, known as HSP60, that is found in high levels in patients with diabetes.

Dr Martinus says HSP60 is capable of causing an inflammatory response in the body which has been linked to disease complications like the build-up of arterial plaques in diabetic patients and neuro-inflammation and cognitive decline seen in both diabetes and Alzheimers.

The plants he and his team are testing are tightly under wraps, but if they can identify new molecules within them that act against the protein and have anti-inflammatory properties, they could offer a new way of treating some of the complications associated with diabetes.

“Our research has shown the HSP60 protein is present in higher levels in patients with diabetes and it is capable of causing an inflammatory response in cells lining our blood vessels. If we can identify compounds present in natural products that can protect against the protein and help reduce inflammation, this could enable the development of novel anti-inflammatory drugs with minimal side effects,” says Dr Martinus.

Dr Martinus said inflammation was a normal and natural response by the body to things like tissue injury and invading pathogens, but problems arose when the HSP60 protein was secreted in high levels causing chronic inflammation with negative consequences.

“People are realising more and more the importance of inflammation in chronic diseases such as diabetes and Alzheimers.  Although we can achieve good glycaemic control in diabetic patients with prescription medicines and lifestyle changes the underlying chronic inflammatory process which can cause complications of the disease remain unresolved,” he said.

“Finding a new way to treat the inflammation associated with some of the complications of diabetes could lead to far better outcomes for patients,” Dr Martinus said.

Dr Martinus says the research is unique to the University of Waikato. His group is the first to establish a link between high blood sugar levels, the HSP60 protein and inflammation in target cells.  They are also using a chemical foot-printing programme, in collaboration with Associate Professor Prinsep, to identify novel anti-inflammatory molecules present in the natural products.

He hoped once novel molecules had been identified their anti-inflammatory potential established in model cell systems, they may be able to undertake clinical trials to test some of the natural products on diabetes patients in the Waikato.

The research in Dr Martinus’ laboratory is funded by University of Waikato SIF, Waikato Medical Research Foundation and Sir Owen Glenn Foundation.

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