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Ceramides: A Key Piece of the Diabetes Puzzle

Diabetes is familiar to many of us. It’s  a chronic health condition that affects how your body turns food into energy. According to the World Health Organization, about 422 million people globally have the disease. And the number of cases has been steadily increasing in recent decades. This is why it is so important to find out what factors lead to someone developing diabetes, so we can stop the rise in diabetes rates.

So, why is diabetes on the rise?

There are a few reasons why we think diabetes is on the rise. As a society, we are eating more calories and sitting more. There are also aspects of our genetics that increase our risk for developing diabetes. These changes impact our metabolism or the way our body changes food into energy. The question is: What is changing in our metabolism?

Scott Summers, PhD, co-director of the Diabetes Metabolism Research Center and chair of the Department of Nutrition & Integrative Physiology at University of Utah Health, is exploring one important aspect of metabolic change that is driving the increase in diabetes: ceramides.

Ceramides are a form of toxic fat that can be thought of almost like cholesterol. They are produced by eating too many calories and also from inflammation in a person's body. When a person's ceramide levels are too high, it can lead to insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. Importantly, researchers have seen in rodents that if we block ceramide production, it prevents the development of all these diseases.

In a recent review article, Summers and other researchers at the University of Utah found that:

  • The problem with ceramides is not just how many there are, but also where they are. When a person is suffering from heart or metabolic disease, they tend to have ceramides build up in many tissues, including blood vessels and the heart.
  • In a clinic, we can measure ceramide levels in a person's blood to better understand their risk for serious heart risks. This helps us better treat that person.
  • We have successfully seen in mice and rats that if we can stop the production of ceramides, then we can prevent the development of diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure.
  • Ceramides can reduce the amount of insulin a body can produce or use, harming the way our cells make energy, creating fibrosis, and causing cell death.
  • There are several promising areas to investigate for drug development, and these potential drugs could help treat a wide range of cardiometabolic diseases.
"Recent studies reveal that circulating ceramide levels correlate strongly with future cardiovascular events such as heart attack and stroke. Studies in rodents suggest that ceramides could also increase your risk for heart disease."
Scott Summers, PhD

Lowering ceramide levels

Summers and other researchers at University of Utah Health are developing new drugs to lower ceramides and prevent or reverse diabetes and its comorbidities. They are also studying ceramide-lowering medications to combat diabetes and heart disease and are working to develop clinical guidelines for these new medications. These researchers hope their investigations will show how drug or dietary interventions can influence ceramide levels. "Much more work is needed, and quickly, on this exciting class of bioactive lipids," Summers concludes.