Through a series of chemical analyses, the researchers then zeroed in on genipin as the active compound. Genipin, like the extract, stimulated insulin secretion in control but not UCP2-deficient pancreas cells.
They further found that acute addition of genipin to isolated pancreatic tissue reversed high glucose- and obesity-induced dysfunction of insulin-producing beta cells. A derivative of genipin that lacked the chemical's cross-linking activity continued to inhibit UCP2, they reported.
That's a good sign for the therapeutic potential of genipin-related compounds, according to Lowell, as such indiscriminate cross-linking would likely have adverse effects. However, further work will need to examine whether inhibition of UCP2 itself might also have some negative consequences.
In addition to the possibility of new drugs, the findings might also prove a boon to the use of Gardenia extract itself for the treatment of disease, particularly in eastern Asia, Zhang said.
Irrespective of genipin's potential for clinical applications, its benefits within the scientific community are already clear, Lowell added.
"Genipin represents an extremely useful investigational tool for studying a number of aspects of UCP2 biology," Lowell added. UCP2 plays a role in the process by which food is converted into energy storage molecules by cellular powerhouses called mitochondria in cells throughout the body.