(NaturalNews) In a collaborative effort between the Chinese government and an Australian research institute, scientists have isolated four compounds in bitter melon that may account for the vegetable's utility as a diabetes treatment in traditional Chinese medicine.
"We can now understand at a molecular level why bitter melon works as a treatment for diabetes," said David James, Director of the Diabetes and Obesity Program at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney, Australia. "By isolating the compounds we believe to be therapeutic, we can investigate how they work together in our cells."
"Chinese medicine is a very rich source for finding new therapies for diseases, including diabetes," said researcher Jiming Ye, also of Garvan. He noted that bitter melon has a long history as a natural diabetes remedy in China, and its use is described in texts nearly 500 years old.
"Bitter melon was described as 'bitter in taste, non-toxic, expelling evil heat, relieving fatigue and illuminating in the famous Compendium of Materia Medica by Li Shizhen (1518-1593), one of the greatest physicians, pharmacologists and naturalists in China's history," he said. "It is interesting, now that we have the technology, to analyze why it has been so effective."
In addition to relieving the symptoms of diabetes, bitter melon is used in traditional Chinese medicine to promote digestion, brighten the eyes and cool the body.
"Not just diabetes, [but] for people keep slim, weight loss - even for ... cholesterol," said Benny Fan of the Australian Chinese Medicine Association. Fan says he has been promoting bitter melon as a natural remedy for 25 years.
Researchers pulped approximately a metric ton of bitter melon and analyzed its chemical components. They identified four compounds that appeared to stimulate the activity of a chemical known as AMPK, which is known to help regulate blood sugar levels.
"When we give this compound to our mice just before a meal, we then give the meal, we find that they have a much more efficient removal of glucose from the blood compared to animals that have not been given the drug," James said.
The results of the study were published in the journal Chemistry & Biology.
In people with diabetes, the body is not able to move enough sugar from the blood and into the cells where it can be burned for energy. This problem arises either from a lack of insulin, a lack of sensitivity to the hormone, or both.
Exercise is normally prescribed as a part of diabetes treatment because it activates AMPK, which is known to help move glucose transporters to the surface of cells, where they can then grab the sugar out of the blood. In the current study, the compounds isolated from bitter melon had the same effect on AMPK as exercise. As a next step, the researchers hope to identify the chemical pathways through which this effect occurs.
The research into bitter melon was launched four years ago, when the Chinese government initiated efforts to form partnerships with Australian researchers into developing new diabetes treatments.
Type 2 diabetes is one of the fastest growing diseases in the world. The World Health Organization estimates that the number of people with diabetes worldwide will increase from 171 million to 350 million by 2030. China is expected to have one of the world's biggest diabetes public health problems by 2025.
The American Diabetes Association estimates that 20 million people in the United States - 7 percent of the population - are diabetic, with another 6.2 million undiagnosed. Forty-one million are prediabetic.
Eventually, a team from Garvan, one of Australia's largest medical research institutes, was selected to join China in its bitter melon research.
"I think a lot of people thought this idea was a little bit weird to begin with," James said. "Maybe some people thought the Garvan Institute had lost the plot. We got the funds for the two big new instruments."
But traditional medicines have always been a source for new drugs, he pointed out.
"Much of our modern medicines actually come from this very way, so aspirin and Metformin - which is one of the most commonly used medications for diabetes - came from plants," James said.
The ultimate goal is to develop new drugs based on bitter melon, the researchers said. James noted that all four compounds identified have been patented, citing it as a sign of "how confident we are that it's a world first."
To date, only the chemical's effects on mice have been studied. Human trials are not expected to commence for about a year.
The researchers said that while some diabetes drugs already on the market work by activating AMPK, those drugs can have serious side effects. In contrast, no side effects were observed in the mice that were fed the bitter melon compounds.
"The advantage of bitter melon is that there are no known side effects," Ye said. "Practitioners of Chinese medicine have used it for hundreds of years to good effect."
In contrast, the side effects from some diabetes drug can seriously threaten some patients' health, according to Kathy Samaris, who has worked with Type 2 diabetics for more than 10 years.
"Some people can experience nausea, a low blood sugar level, but in its worst manifestations will cause a seizure," Samaris said. "A lot of the drugs will cause weight gain which in people who are already struggling with their weight is a big added problem."
Health experts cautioned that before they rush out to eat large quantities of bitter melon, diabetes patients should consult a medical professional. In addition, proper diet and exercise are still the best way to prevent diabetes.