Diabetes and obesity - diabesity - is a growing global epidemic and of increasing concern because of the associated health complications. Finding a natural means of tackling and managing this disease could benefit millions of people, while making significant savings in health-care costs. This is why an EU-funded project is exploring the health-promoting potential of proteins found in a grain traditionally grown in the Mediterranean region.
© Fotolia, 2012
The proteins in question (β -conglutins) belong to the Lupinus angustifolius, or narrow-leaf lupin (NLL) grain. The multi-disciplinary team behind the EU-funded Lupin-Challenge project believe that these proteins could provide answers to the prevention of diabetes and obesity, as well as other problems associated with food allergies.
The potential benefits of this three-year project are huge. Unlocking the secrets of these proteins could be the first step towards designing alternative lupin-enriched food with positive health benefits, and to making significant improvements to clinical trials on food allergy.
Natural approach to diabetes
"This research is part of an ongoing programme of work dealing with the identification of key genes [the units of heredity in living organisms] in the lupin seed storage protein (SSP) pool, and part of these results have recently been published," explains project researcher Dr José C. Jiménez-López. "The Lupin-Challenge project aims to uncover more insights into the molecular role and the mechanisms underlying their ability to increase insulin sensitivity and/or reduce appetite." Insulin sensitivity relates to people who require normal or low levels of the hormone insulin to process glucose.
In the long-term, this knowledge may assist in designing and developing lupin-based health-promoting food to help combat the diabetes and obesity epidemic that is currently sweeping the world. The European Association for the Study of Obesity estimates that there will be over 20 million overweight children (of whom 5 million will be obese) within a decade.
One reason why the Lupin-Challenge project is innovative is that only a few studies have examined the potential medical benefits of the plant's SSP, which have proven to possess "anti-hyperglycaemic" effects, useful in combatting type-2 diabetes. These proteins, says Dr Jiménez-López, promise to be novel, effective and affordable solutions to what has become one of the world's costliest health epidemics.
Addressing food allergies
The project team is also busy examining the molecular aspects that lupin ?-conglutins play in food allergies, with the longer-term goal of applying this knowledge to prevention, diagnosis and food-allergy therapy. As is the case for many legumes, seed proteins from lupin species can potentially contribute to food allergy. The prevalence of food allergies varies by country, but the highest rates are found among children between 0 and 14 years old. Food allergies affect over a quarter – 26% – of the world's population.
However, only a few preliminary studies have been carried out on the allergic aspects of lupin seed proteins.
"Gaining knowledge on lupin's specific molecular allergy will contribute to strategies to improve clinical trials, allergy diagnosis, and breeding allergenic-reduce lupin lines," says Dr Jiménez-López. "And beyond this three-year project, the longer-term development and commercialisation of patented diagnosis kits and allergy vaccines, based on the results from this project, could also have important economic and social benefits."
Overall, Lupin-Challenge promises benefits that will far exceed its three-year time frame. Indeed, this exciting project could be a significant catalyst for change. At present, NLL is not a widespread crop in Europe, but working alongside the multidisciplinary project team, Dr Jiménez-López hopes to prove that it has significant potential. While the breeding of cultivars for use in functional foods or allergen tests has yet to be fully developed, the potential is clearly there.