(CNN)The bacteria got its name — Akkermansia muciniphila — just 15 years ago. But the species, which breaks down gel-like proteins in the intestines, may soon offer hope to those with obesity-related disorders.
According to a study published Monday in the journal Nature Medicine, overweight people who drank supplements of the gut bacterium — which occurs naturally in the digestive system — showed improved sensitivity to insulin, a hormone that lets the body use sugar in the blood and is implicated in diabetes.
Compared to those who received a placebo, patients who consumed the bacteria also had lower cholesterol levels and lost 5 pounds on average over three months, although the weight loss was not statistically significant.
Thirty-two overweight or obese people participated in the study, and all of them had some symptoms of metabolic syndrome, a group of risk factors — such as high waist circumference or high blood pressure — that increases the likelihood of heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
The small sample size may explain why researchers couldn’t definitively report that the bacteria, and not other factors, led to the weight loss. The researchers wrote that their study “was not powered to deliver definitive conclusions” on metrics like BMI or body fat but was a “promising start” nonetheless for obese people who are insulin-resistant.
“We were not really expecting effects on the body weight [and waist and hip measurements], but we still observed interesting trends,” said Patrice Cani, the study’s senior author and a professor at Belgium’s Catholic University of Louvain.
He emphasized that “this approach will never replace appropriate dietary habits and physical activity,” but he said the bacteria could complement diet and exercise to “boost the metabolism and help to improve metabolic factors.”
The study was the first known example of scientists administering the bacteria to humans, and the research was designed in part to assess its safety. “There were no side effects,” said Cani.