Professor Jack Vanden Heuvel, co-director of Penn State's Center of Excellence in Nutrigenomics, has suggested that incorporating CLA as a dietary supplement or from enriched foods, in addition to a balanced diet, could be a suitable way of helping diabetics control their blood glucose and insulin levels.
CLAs are found predominantly in dairy products such as milk and cheese, as well as meat. They are formed by bacteria in ruminants that take linoleic acids - fatty acids from plants - and convert them into conjugated linoleic acids, or CLA.
The benefits of CLA for diabetics is not new, with studies with the rat model for diabetes, called the Zucker fatty rat, producing a 50 per cent reduction in glucose and insulin.
And, despite human intervention trials producing mixed results, Vanden Heuvel said generally eight weeks of CLA supplementation in type-2 diabetics can lead to improvements.
An estimated 19m people are affected by diabetes in the EU 25, equal to four per cent of the total population. This figure is projected to increase to 26m by 2030.
In the US, there are more than 20m people with diabetes, equal to seven per cent of the population. The total costs are thought to be as much as $132bn, with $92bn being direct costs from medication, according to 2002 American Diabetes Association figures.
"The eight-week number that was quoted actually comes from examining the review articles on the human studies," Vanden Heuvel said.
"By eight weeks of CLA [suuplementation] you see a reduction in body fat (in most studies); since body fat is causally related to diabetes, I interpret this to mean that there is an improvement in diabetes."
Vanden Heuvel added, however, that no studies have shown a decrease in glucose utilisation in humans given CLA supplements, highlighting a need for a large, long-term clinical study to examine the effects of CLA supplements on human health.
The mechanism behind these benefits is said to be similar to anti-diabetic drugs, he said. It works by triggering a set of nuclear receptors called PPAR, with the biological purpose to sense fatty acids and fatty acid metabolites within the cell, and increase the tissues' sensitivity to insulin.
"Anti-diabetes drugs act the same way. They mimic the natural activators of the receptors by getting into the cell and interacting with the PPARs to regulate glucose and fat metabolism.
"And compared to the synthetic drugs used to treated this disease, CLA does not cause weight gain and may in fact decrease overall body fat," said Vanden Heuvel.
Despite such promising results, several challenges remain. "[Firstly], showing that there is true, clinical efficacy of CLA in treating diabetes. Rat models are great for testing a hypothesis, but they may not reflect what happens in humans. [Secondly], there are more than one "CLA". This term refers to a lot of isomers and each isomer may have a different biology. Some of the studies done on diabetes were performed using a purified isomer whereas others use a mixture of CLA isomers. This makes interpretation difficult.
"[Finally], how can we incorporate this information into a healthy lifestyle? Should we encourage consumption of dairy products or are we talking about a dietary supplement? We need more research to address all of these issues."
Vanden Heuvel said that his work has generated interest from industry, with CLA supplement makers, Pharmanutrients and Natural said to be keen, while the National Cattlemen's Beef Association were said to have funded some of the initial research.