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Natural sugar, trehalose, boosts the cleanup machinery of the immune system and reduces atherosclerosis

By Connie Wan, P.h.D | June 12th, 2017

Not all sugars are created equal. A new study published by the scientists from the Washington University School of Medicine (WUSM) reports that trehalose, a natural sugar that can be found in mushrooms, can boost macrophages, the machinery that the immune system uses to cleanup cellular debris in the atherosclerotic plague, and therefore reduces the progression atherosclerosis.

Atherosclerosis is a disease in which plaque builds up inside your blood vessel arteries. Plaque is made up of fat, cholesterol, calcium, and other substances found in the blood. Over time, plaque hardens and narrows the arteries. This limits the flow of oxygen-rich blood to vital organs such as heart and brain. Atherosclerosis can lead to serious problems, including heart attack, stroke, or even death. In the United States and most other developed countries, atherosclerosis is the leading cause of illness and death.

Trehalose is a sugar consisting of two linked glucose molecules. In nature, trehalose can be found in animals, plants, and microorganisms. In animals, trehalose is prevalent in shrimp. Trehalose is nutritionally equivalent to glucose, because it is rapidly broken down into glucose by the enzyme trehalase, which is present in the intestine.

The WUSM researchers focused on the ability of trehalose to increase the amount of organelles inside specialized “housekeeping” cells known as macrophages. These white blood cells digest unwanted cellular material in the body and the organelles (i.e. cleaning tools) they contain help them to do the work. However, in atherosclerosis, when macrophages try to fix damage to the artery by cleaning up the area, they often get overwhelmed by the plaques’ inflammatory nature and their housekeeping process gets gummed up. This unfortunately triggers the immune system to send more immune cells to try to clean up the mess, which exacerbates the problem − a soup starts building up with dying cells and debris and the plaque grows.

In this study, when the researchers injected mice predisposed to atherosclerosis with trehalose, they saw an approximate 30 percent reduction in the size of plaques in the rodents’ arteries. Further research shows that trehalose works by activating a molecule called TFEB. This molecule activates genes in macrophage leading to the creation of the additional organelles, effectively turning the macrophages into “super-macrophages.” Therefore, trehalose is not just enhancing the housekeeping tools that are already there; it triggers the cell to make new tools. With its increased ability to clean up unwanted material in the arteries, the super-macrophages could reduce the built-up of the plagues and therefore slow down the progression of atherosclerosis. Knowing how trehalose works, the researchers are also hopeful that trehalose could help fight other conditions including type 2 diabetes and fatty liver disease.

Unfortunately, the study showed that trehalose only worked when it was given as an injection. When it is taken orally, digestive enzymes break it apart and therefore shut down its TFEB-activating property.

Thanks for reading.

Journal Reference: Sergin, I.; Ranani, B. et al., Exploiting macrophage autophagy-lysosomal biogenesis as a therapy for atherosclerosis, Nature Communications 8, Article number: 15750 (2017), doi:10.1038/ncomms15750.

Source: Informed Nutrition

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