Getting to the guts of the matter

Damien Keating
Professor Damien Keating with PhD students Helen Dockrell and Alyce Martin in the Molecular and Cellular Physiology Laboratory at Flinders Medical School.

Health, wellbeing and weight is more than a gut feeling, it’s about how the gut is working.

Flinders scientists are examining the production and distribution of hormones and serotonin in the gut and their association with metabolism and weight gain.

And if their ARC Linkage research project is successful, there might be some promising answers to obesity and chronic conditions such as type 2 diabetes.

With obesity acknowledged as one of the biggest risk factors in getting diabetes, this pathway it going to gain more attention, says Professor Damien Keating, head of the Molecular and Cellular Physiology Laboratory at Flinders Medical School.

An estimated 1.5 million Australians have type 2 diabetes, and this is predicted to increase to 3.3 million by 2031. By 2023, type 2 diabetes is predicted to become the number one specific burden of disease in Australia.

Not only do serotonin levels in the brain affect mood and anxiety, but serotonin released from specialised endocrine cells lining the gut wall also appears to affect metabolism and how fat people get.

“About 95% of our serotonin is made in the gut and we’ve now seen that this plays a major role in the body’s metabolism,” says Professor Keating.

“We also know that our gut bacteria (microbiome) regulate our metabolism and recent research demonstrates these bacteria control our gut serotonin.

“Thus, along with gut microbiota, these serotonin cells in the gut seem to play a pivotal role in obesity and metabolism.”

Professor Keating and a team of researchers at Flinders and the SA Health and Medical Research Institute this year won a two-year ARC Linkage grant to grain a deeper understanding of nutrient sensing pathways present in endocrine cells in the human intestine. These cells control digestive function, blood glucose levels and food intake.

The health costs of diabetes are accelerating rapidly, with an additional 2 million Australians estimated to have pre-diabetes. These individuals have impaired glucose tolerance and increased fasting glucose which puts them at high risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

In partnership with a global pharma company, the Flinders research could produce new drugs to combat this rising tide of diabetes.

Professor Keating this month presented on gut endocrinology and gut motility at the Australian Society for Medical Research Bugs, Bowels and Beyond (Innovations in Digestive Health and Disease Research) Conference in Adelaide. He is part of the Nutrition and Metabolism research team at the SA Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI) in Adelaide.

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