Artificial sweetener could help combat autoimmune disease

Scientist studying using a microscope. Image by Yakuzakorat – Own work, CC BY 4.0

A new investigation into artificial sweeteners indicates there could be a role in treating autoimmune diseases. Investigating sucralose, scientists have been exploring how it impacts the immune system, especially disrupting T cells.

Sucralose is a substance 600 times sweeter than sugar and is a common food and drink additive. The majority of ingested sucralose is not broken down by the body, so it is regarded as noncaloric.

Since the longer-term effects of artificial sweeteners like sucralose on humans are unclear, the research adds to the developing body of knowledge about these food additives. This could lead to something positive in terms of medicine: Sucralose might have a therapeutic application for people with overactive immune systems that can trigger inflammatory or autoimmune diseases.

With the research from the Francis Crick Institute, London, laboratory mice were fed sucralose at levels equivalent to the maximum daily recommended intake set by European and American food safety authorities. It was discovered that the T cells of the mice were less able to activate, as would be the case when responding to cancer or an infection.

T cells are part of the immune system and they develop from stem cells in the bone marrow. The cells help protect the human body from infection.

The research established that other types of immune cells were not affected. In terms of what is happening to T cells, the research suggests that high sucralose levels influence the release of intracellular calcium when cells are stimulated. The consequence of this is to have a dampening effect on the T cells’ activation state.

Given that the doses used on the animals in this study were very high, people who consume drinks and foods that contain sucralose are most probably not interfering with their immune system.

The medical importance is with a possible means of quietening down the immune system. With further research it was shown, again using a mouse model of autoimmune disease, when mice were given a diet that was high in sucralose, the disruptive effect of the diseased T cells was mitigated.

This research should add to the understanding of how diet can impact health and disease, and how diets can be tailored to maximize the benefits for individual patients. Specifically, the research may help to address some symptoms of autoimmune conditions.

The research appears in the journal Nature, titled “The dietary sweetener sucralose is a negative modulator of T cell-mediated responses.”

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