Postbiotics May Prevent Diabetes in Obesity

You’ve likely heard about probiotics—live bacteria with long, colorful names found in your yogurt that help generate a happy gut. You may have even heard of prebiotics, which are compounds that have a beneficial effect on the bacteria in your body. But you’re probably less familiar with postbiotics—factors derived from bacteria that can also have a positive impact on our health.

Researchers at McMaster University who study diabetes and obesity have discovered a postbiotic factor called MDP that prevents pre-diabetic obese mice from developing diabetes. Their surprising results were recently published in Cell Metabolism.

When bacteria in the gut become chronically out of balance—known as intestinal dysbiosis [PDF]—a person can become insulin resistant, or prediabetic. Dysbiosis is often found in people with obesity. “Key markers on the road to diabetes are insulin sensitivity and insulin resistance—how well that hormone can lower blood glucose,” Jon Schertzer, lead study author and assistant professor of biochemistry at McMaster University tells Mental Floss. Insulin’s job is to bring your blood glucose back up to normal after you eat or drink something. If you’re insulin resistant, or improperly sensitive, insulin can’t do its job properly. “What a postbiotic does is allow the insulin to do a better job,” he says.

Schertzer’s team sought to investigate whether postbiotics could have an impact on obesity before a person becomes overtly diabetic. “The focus of this study is prediabetes—the stage before the overt disease has developed and it’s still reversible. Obesity is the biggest risk factor for prediabetes,” he explains.

The team found that a postbiotic called muramyl dipeptide (MDP), derived from a bacterial cell wall, was able to reduce insulin resistance in mouse models—regardless of weight loss or changes in the intestinal microbiome during obesity.

To test this, Schertzer separated mice into two groups. One group was given MDP at the same time as they were fed a high-fat diet intended to cause obesity. In that experiment, the mice were given MDP four days per week for five weeks. The MDP injections improved insulin and glucose tolerance after five weeks—remarkably, without altering body mass or fatty tissue levels.

In the second group, the team fed the mice into a state of obesity over 10 weeks, putting them into a state of prediabetes. Then they injected MDP into the mice three times over three days and saw a rapid improvement in blood glucose by the third day. “It’s not that the injection itself is lowering blood glucose, but those three short duration injections set the program up to allow insulin to work better,” he says.

When the body senses MDP is present, it increases the amount of a protein in fat tissue, called IR4, which sends out signals that lower blood glucose. “We don’t fully understand how it signals the body to lower blood glucose,” he admits. “We do know it reduces inflammation.”

While that may not sound dramatic, he says they were quite surprised, given that the typical immune response is to increase inflammation. “The postbiotic actually reduced inflammation in fat tissue, which are the tissues that control blood glucose,” he says.

While the results are exciting, he’s quick to point out that “we’re interested in discovery. We’ll leave the clinical aspect to clinicians.” They’d like to achieve a version of MDP that could be taken orally and not injected, but more research will be required. Plus, postbiotics can be a finicky area of research. He describes testing a different postbiotic that's a “a close cousin" to MDP, being "a different type of cell wall that was different by only one peptide.” But that postbiotic made glucose tolerance and inflammation much worse.

However, they also tested what’s called an “orphan drug”—approved only for clinical trials but not likely to make the drug company any money—called mifamurtide, typically used in treating bone cancers. Mifamurtide is synthetic, but chemically identical to the MDP postbiotic. It, too, improved blood glucose and insulin tolerance when administered to mice. The promising part about it is that since the drug is already given to humans in clinical trials, “it could make the transition to humans far more rapid,” he says.

One of their next steps is to expand the models they’re using, starting with age-induced diabetes. “Obesity is only one factor that promotes diabetes,” he says.

The most pressing question now, he says, is “to understand what is actually happening in the gut during obesity.” This compound promises a future in which obesity would pose less of a risk factor for diabetes. And postbiotics hold a lot of potential for future research.

“Postbiotics are a new source of drugs. Bacteria have different physiology from us, and can make all kinds of things that we can’t make,” Schertzer says.

11 Masks That Will Keep You Safe and Stylish

Design Safe/Designer Face Covers/Its All Goods
Design Safe/Designer Face Covers/Its All Goods

Face masks are going to be the norm for the foreseeable future, and with that in mind, designers and manufacturers have answered the call by providing options that are tailored for different lifestyles and fashion tastes. Almost every mask below is on sale, so you can find one that fits your needs without overspending.

1. Multicolor 5-pack of Polyester Face Masks; $22 (56 percent off)

Home Essentials

This set of five polyester masks offers the protection you need in a range of colors, so you can coordinate with whatever outfit you're wearing.

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2. 3D Comfort Masks 5-Pack; $20 (25 percent off)

Brio

The breathable, stretchy fabric in these 3D masks makes them a comfortable option for daily use.

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3. Reusable Face Masks 2-pack; $15 (50 percent off)

Triple Grade

This cotton mask pack is washable and comfortable. Use the two as a matching set with your best friend or significant other, or keep the spare for laundry day.

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RipleyRader

Don’t let masks get in the way of staying active. These double-layer cotton masks are breathable but still protect against those airborne particles.

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Its All Good

Avoid the accidental nose-out look with this cotton mask that stays snug to your face.

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Elicto

With this 12-pack of protective masks, you can keep a few back-ups in your car and hand the rest out to friends and family who need them.

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Triple Grade

This dust-proof mask can filter out 95 percent of germs and other particles, making it a great option for anyone working around smoke and debris all day, or even if you're just outside mowing the lawn.

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8. Reusable Fun Face Cover / Neck Gaiter (Flamingo); $20

Designer Face Covers

Channel some tropical energy with this flamingo fabric neck gaiter. The style of this covering resembles a bandana, which could save your ears and head from soreness from elastic loops. Other designs include a Bauhaus-inspired mask and this retro look.

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9. Seamless Bandana Mask; $8 (52 percent off)

Eargasm Earplugs

This seamless gaiter-style mask can be worn properly for protection and fashioned up into a headband once you're in the car or a safe space. Plus, having your hair out of your face will help you avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth before washing your hands.

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Design Safe

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Its All Good

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Prices subject to change.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links. If you haven't received your voucher or have a question about your order, contact the Mental Floss shop here.

How Henrietta Lacks Became the Mother of Modern Medicine

A historical marker in Clover, Virginia, honors Henrietta Lacks.
A historical marker in Clover, Virginia, honors Henrietta Lacks.

On February 8, 1951, a surgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, shaved a piece of cancerous tissue from the cervix of a 30-year-old woman. She had signed an “operation permit,” allowing him to place radium into her cervix to treat her cancer, but nobody had explained their plans to her. And no one foresaw that Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman with a sixth-grade education and five children, would become the mother of modern medicine.

Henrietta was born Loretta Pleasant on August 1, 1920, in Roanoke, Virginia. Somehow, her name became Henrietta. After her mother died in 1924, Henrietta was sent to Clover, Virginia, to live with her grandfather, Tommy Lacks. Her cousin David “Day” Lacks lived in the same house.

Seventeen years later, after having two children together, Henrietta and Day married and then moved close to Baltimore so that Day could work at Bethlehem Steel while Henrietta took care of their growing family. She was big-hearted, fun-loving, and pretty, and though only 5 feet tall, she dressed and walked with a flare.

Immortal Cells

But on January 29, 1951, four months after the birth of her fifth child, Henrietta went to the dreaded hospital. Most Black people living in the Baltimore area did not trust Johns Hopkins. It was segregated, so they were certain they would not receive the same quality of care as white people, and, worse, they would be used for medical experiments. There were rumors that surgeons routinely performed hysterectomies on Black women who came in with any type of abdominal or pelvic pain. Henrietta was not one to complain, but, according to the 2010 book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, she could no longer bear the painful “knot on her womb.”

The tissue taken from her cervix 10 days later was given to Dr. George Gey, director of tissue culture research at Hopkins [PDF]. He believed that if he could find a continually dividing line of malignant human cells, all originating from the same sample, he could find the cause of cancer—and its cure. His assistant placed tiny squares of the specimen into test tubes, then labeled each tube with the first two letters of the unwitting donor’s first and last names: HeLa.

Oregon State University via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Soon, Henrietta’s cells began to divide. And, unlike the other cells they had sampled, they did not die. Gey started giving the immortal cells to colleagues, saying they had come from a woman named Helen Lane.

Within two years, HeLa cells had been put into mass production, commercialized, and distributed worldwide, becoming central to the development of vaccines and many medical advances. By 2017, HeLa cells had been studied in 142 countries and had made possible research that led to two Nobel Prizes, 17,000 patents, and 110,000 scientific papers, thereby establishing Henrietta’s role as the mother of modern medicine.

Henrietta had died on October 4, 1951. No one had told Henrietta, or her husband Day, that the cells still existed. No one had mentioned the myriad hopes and plans for HeLa cells. No one had asked permission to take them or use them.

HeLa Revealed

In 1971, an article in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology reexamined the origin of the HeLa cells and reported that cervical adenocarcinoma had led to the death of the cell donor, Henrietta Lacks. Her name was now public knowledge.

Two years later, in a casual conversation with a friend, Henrietta’s family learned about the cells. The Lackses were shocked: Henrietta was alive through her cells.

A scanning electron micrograph of just-divided HeLa cellsNational Institutes of Health, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Then, a Rolling Stone article created an uproar in the scientific community by disclosing that the woman behind the cells was Black. Once again, the Lacks family was stunned. The article revealed that significant amounts of money were being made from the cells—while Henrietta's husband and children could not afford decent medical care and while her body lay in an unmarked grave.

More reports were written about Henrietta’s cells. Intimate details from her medical record were exposed in a 1986 book called A Conspiracy of Cells: One Woman’s Immortal Legacy and The Medical Scandal It Caused. Medical professionals came to draw blood from her children. The BBC made a movie, The Way of All Flesh. And, as Skloot reports, a con man claimed he could get money for the family from Johns Hopkins.

Meanwhile, and throughout subsequent decades, the Lacks family's focus has been to try to figure out what it means to them that her cells are alive. They have received none of the billions of dollars the cells have garnered for biomedical companies, cell banks, and researchers. But Henrietta’s family can be heartened that through the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, founded by Skloot in 2009, the mother of modern medicine continues to demonstrate her big-heartedness.

The foundation’s mission is to “provide financial assistance to individuals in need, and their families, who have made important contributions to scientific research without personally benefiting from those contributions, particularly those used in research without their knowledge or consent." Moreover, it gives the countless people who have benefited from their contributions a way to show their appreciation to them. To date, members of the Lacks family and others have received more than 50 monetary grants.