Novel Study Links High-Sugar Diet to Heart Disease

A novel study of high-sugar consumption in Drosophila fruit flies is leading researchers at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai to a greater understanding of diabetes-related heart disease, and to therapeutic targets that could ultimately prevent arrhythmia, fibrosis, and other serious heart conditions.

The research—led by Ross L. Cagan, PhD, Professor of Developmental and Regenerative Biology, and Associate Dean of the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences—was conducted in partnership with scientists from the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute in California, and published online in the January 10 issue of PLOS Genetics.

“Our study shows the power of fly genetics and introduces our fly model of diabetic cardiomyopathy,” says Dr. Cagan. “When we fed normal fruit flies a high-sugar diet they became classically diabetic. The flies experienced the three major hallmarks of type 2 diabetes-related heart disease found in humans.” These conditions are arrhythmia, fibrosis, and abnormal fractional shortening—when the heart has difficulty pumping.

Within three weeks of being fed a steady diet high in table sugar or sucrose, the study found the fruit flies had become obese. Not only did their levels of insulin skyrocket, but their life span was cut in half.

Interestingly, when the flies were fed high-fat and high-protein diets, Dr. Cagan says they did not experience diabetic-related heart problems, furthering the theory that a direct correlation exists between diabetes and high dietary sugar.

In addition, the same insulin and P38 pathways that have been shown to mediate heart dysfunction in mammals were found to function similarly in flies. The study went a step further to show that dietary sucrose directs heart damage in part by its breakdown through the hexosamine biosynthetic pathway that has been linked to diabetes. That knowledge could help in the development of effective therapies.

Dr. Cagan says his lab is conducting additional studies on fruit flies that will examine the connection between high-sugar consumption and kidney disease.

This article was first published in Inside Mount Sinai.

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