Exploring the metabolism of sugar and protein to shed new light on chronic disease

Associate Professor Chris Shaw is aiming to understand the different metabolic processes that are stimulated when sugar and protein are consumed. 

The project, funded through a Diabetes Australia grant, will answer fundamental questions about how insulin acts on the body’s tissues to regulate blood sugar concentrations. Despite years of research, very little is understood about how rises in insulin after a meal impact the body’s tissues. 

“Insulin is the major hormone that is released into the circulation after a meal and it stimulates the muscle to take up sugar from the blood. This transport of sugar into the muscle prevents large rises in blood sugar concentrations after a meal,” Associate Professor Shaw explained.  

“We know that very similar rises in insulin occur in the blood when either sugar or protein is consumed. But the impact each nutrient has on the body’s tissues are quite different, as glucose uptake into the muscle is only stimulated after consuming sugar and not protein.  

“We don’t yet understand why the same rise in insulin can trigger different responses in the muscle.” 

As part of the study, participants consume a drink containing either sugar or protein. Blood and muscle samples are taken at regular intervals in the hours following the drink. 

This allows Associate Professor Shaw to examine glucose uptake into muscle (and other metabolic responses) and the activation of signalling pathways in muscle following the consumption of sugar and protein. He will then examine which signalling pathways are linked specifically to glucose transport after a meal.  

While this project focuses on young healthy people, Associate Professor Shaw plans to use the findings in follow-up studies to further the understanding of chronic health conditions such as type 2 diabetes. 

“Most studies to date have used experimental techniques in the lab that don’t reflect what actually happens when we eat a meal at home,” he said.  

“Understanding this is critically important so we can learn more about the processes that go wrong when people develop metabolic diseases such as diabetes. 

“This project will provide information on which signalling pathways in muscle are responsible for lowering blood glucose levels. We may even discover entirely new signalling pathways that are activated after eating a meal.  

“This information could ultimately guide the development of more successful therapies for patients with diabetes.”