Toronto researchers say a key protein might play an important role in why some people with obesity go on to develop Type 2 diabetes. And if they can figure out a way to increase this protein, they say they might be able to prevent those at high risk of the disease from ever developing it.

The protein is called Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor (VEGF), and its normal function is to create new blood vessels during embryonic development or after injury.

Those with full diabetes are known to have low levels of VEGF. Now, researchers at Mount Sinai's Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute in Toronto say low levels of the protein may also be a key reason why the fat cells of obesity set the conditions for diabetes.

The researchers explain that in those who are obese, low blood and oxygen flow in their fat cells can impair the ability of the pancreas to produce insulin, which can lead to high blood sugar and eventually, full diabetes. But they believe that increasing VEGF can help improve low levels of blood and oxygen, thereby possibly preventing diabetes.

For those who are already showing the early symptoms of diabetes, when the pancreas has not yet stopped producing insulin, the researchers say that increasing VEGF levels could potentially prevent -- and possibly reverse – the development of diabetes.

“These findings provide us with new opportunities to slow or prevent progression of diabetes while tackling the increasing problem of obesity,” senior investigator Dr. Andras Nagy said in a statement Tuesday.

The research so far has only been done on mice, but Nagy says it has already shed light on why fat cells in obesity may behave abnormally compared to fat tissue in those with a normal weight.

And he says his team’s findings are the first to show that increasing blood flow in fat tissue may revert early-stage diabetes back to healthy conditions.

“Our findings have changed the way we are thinking about how obesity affects our metabolism -- in fact, this study opens up a new way of looking at treatment and therapy for obese patients who are at increased risk for diabetes," says Nagy.

The study, which appears in the journal Cell Metabolism, was funded by the New Frontiers Program Project Grant from the Terry Fox Foundation.