Science in Mind

Scientists unravel obesity surgery’s potent effect on diabetes

For years, doctors have been intrigued and mystified by the remarkable power of weight-loss surgery to treat type 2 diabetes. Stomach-shrinking gastric bypass surgery is typically used to treat extremely obese patients, but it has become clear that the intervention is more potent than doctors anticipated. Patients are often taken off of diabetes medicines before they have had significant weight loss — and before they even leave the hospital.

Researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital, curious what organ or bodily process could account for the body’s sudden improved regulation of blood sugar, put rats that had undergone a gastric bypass into a PET medical imaging scanner that can track where sugar is in the body. In the scanner, one part of the rat’s body glowed with activity: the small intestine. “What we found is it’s an energy guzzling organ after gastric bypass,” said Dr. Nicholas Stylopoulos, an obesity researcher at Children’s who led the work, published Thursday in the journal Science. The intestine “uses so much energy after gastric bypass, because it has to work harder.”


The researchers studied the biomolecular changes in the intestine after surgery to try and pick apart what precise alterations could account for its new role as a hot spot for regulating blood sugar. What they found surprised them, because it isn’t typically found in the intestines of adults: a molecule that acts as a glucose transporter and ferries sugar out of the blood and into cells.

Understanding those changes in detail lays the groundwork for the search for effective diabetes therapies, Stylopoulos said. Now, scientists can examine whether it is possible to use a drug or other intervention to trigger the body to generate that transporter molecule in the intestine.

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.