A new treatment for diabetes may have just been identified from the most unlikely source: the basic ingredient of a candy.

Licorice root, the raw material for licorice candy, has now been hailed as containing substances with an anti-diabetic effect. These molecules reduce blood sugar and possess anti-inflammatory properties.

And even more important: they are extremely well tolerated by the human body.

Because of its beneficial effects, the licorice root has been dubbed the 'Medicinal plant of 2012.'

The licorice root has been used as a traditional healer since ancient times. Certain forms of licorice root have already been shown to calm the digestive system and ameliorate respiratory ailments in humans. Because of its beneficial effects, the licorice root has been dubbed the "Medicinal plant of 2012."

Now scientists have discovered that licorice root from the papilionaceae or leguminous family might also be effective in the treatment of type 2 diabetes. This form of diabetes affects humans who are usually overweight or obese, causing the body becoming resistant to insulin. So far, treatments for type 2 diabetes have been developed but none of them halt disease progression. Many clinicians believe that the best treatment for type 2 diabetes is to prevent it before it starts.

The group that made the discovery is based at the Max Plank Institute for Molecular Genetics in Berlin, Germany. A research team there identified a group of natural substances within licorice root called amorfrutins, which are named after the fruit of the Amorpha fruticosa bush in which they are also found.

The group demonstrated in a mouse model of diabetes that amorfrutins reduce blood sugar levels and inflammation that would otherwise be present in the mice suffering from diabetes. In addition, ingesting the amorfrutins prevented the development of a fatty liver - which is a common side effect of diabetes and an excessively fat-rich diet.

The scientists also discovered that the amorfrutin molecules bind to a nuclear receptor called PPARγ. PPARγ plays an important role in fat and glucose metabolism by activating various genes that reduced the concentration of fatty acids and glucose within the blood. The reduced glucose level prevented the development of insulin resistance in the mice - thereby blocking the main cause of type 2 diabetes.

There are already drugs on the market that activate the PPARγ receptor; however, many of them are not selective and cause side effects like weight gain and cardiovascular problems. Amorfrutins represent a novel method to activate the PPARγ receptor minus the side effects.

However, the scientists immediately found a problem with dosage. The amount of amorfrutin molecules in a piece of licorice available for human consumption is far too low to cause the same beneficial effects that were identified in the diabetic mice. Therefore, the researchers are developing a special protocol to extract amorfrutins from the Amorpha fruticosa that they hope will lead to mass production on an industrial scale.

"The amorfrutins can be used as functional nutritional supplements or as mild remedies that are individually tailored to the patient," said Sascha Sauer, lead investigator of the study and head of the Otto Warburg Laboratory at Max Plank Institute. "In view of the rapid spread of metabolic diseases like diabetes, it is intended to develop these substances further so that they can be used on humans in the future."

The next step for the scientists will be to test the efficacy of the plant amorfrutin extracts in clinical studies on diabetes patients. Diabetes patients are in dire need of a new drug after a pair of treatments currently on the market, Avandia and Actos, were recently restricted by the FDA after new evidence surfaced linking the drugs to heart failure and stroke.

This study was published online in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA on April 16, 2012.