Researchers at Canada's Universite Laval Faculty of Medicine, the Quebec Heart and Lung Institute Research Center, and the Institute of Nutrition and Functional Foods found that the molecule mimics some of the effects of physical exercise on blood glucose regulation.
It is known that omega-3 fatty acids can help reduce insulin resistance caused by a diet high in saturated fat.
In their earlier work, Professor Andre Marette, Scientific Director of Universite Laval's Institute of Nutrition and Functional Foods, and his colleagues had linked these effects to a bioactive lipid called protectin D1.
In investigating further, they discovered that another member of the same family named protectin DX (PDX) triggers the production and release of interleukin 6 (IL-6) in muscle cells, a response that also occurs during physical exercise.
"Once in the bloodstream, IL-6 controls glucose levels in two ways: it signals to the liver to reduce glucose production and acts directly on the muscles to increase glucose uptake," Marette said.
The researchers used transgenic mice lacking the IL-6 gene to demonstrate the link between PDX and IL-6. PDX had very little effect on the control of blood glucose in these animals.
In similar tests conducted on obese diabetic rats, PDX was shown to dramatically improve responsiveness to insulin, the hormone which regulates blood glucose.
"The mechanism of action described for PDX represents a new therapeutic strategy for improving glucose control. Its efficacy may be comparable with that of certain drugs currently prescribed to control glycemia," Marette said.
Even though PDX appears to mimic the effect of physical exercise by triggering IL-6 secretion in the muscles, Marette warned that it is not a substitute for physical activity.
Marette and Universite Laval have filed a patent application for PDX and its therapeutic applications.
"For us, the next step is to demonstrate the antidiabetic effects in humans and determine the receptor through which PDX acts," Marette said.
The research was published in the journal Nature Medicine.