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Breakthrough for diabetes treatment announced from understanding how insulin interacts with cells

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
New discovery could end need for insulin injections for diabetics.

Understanding how insulin interacts with cells in the body could mean new hope for people living with diabetes. Scientists know insulin controls blood sugar levels, but they haven’t understood how it works until now.

Researchers from Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine said their discovery could mean ‘dramatic’ improvements for management of diabetes that affects 8 percent of the US population.

Michael A. Weiss, MD, PhD, MBA, who participated in the research, said in a press release, "This new information increases exponentially the chances that we can develop better treatments—in particular, oral medications instead of syringes, pens or pumps."

He adds the finding has ‘profound’ implications for patients with diabetes. In 1991 Dr. Weiss identified the structure of insulin using nuclear magnetic resonance techniques. He is also working on developing a type of insulin that does not need refrigeration.

Insulin’s structure was first described in 1969 by the late Dorothy Hodgkin and colleagues at the University of Oxford.

Weiss says since then, there has been a ‘logjam’ in understanding how the hormone binds to cells that the new research has finally and definitely uncovered.

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For their research the investigators developed three-dimensional models. The research was a collaborative effort of scientists from Case Western and the University of Chicago, the University of York in the United Kingdom, and the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry in Prague in the Czech Republic.

The researchers knew glucose transport into cells where it is used as energy has to occur with help from insulin. Most cells have receptors that help insulin bind to glucose to transport it out of the bloodstream into cells.

The researchers were able to obtain highly detailed images of insulin and glucose ‘shaking hands’ in 3D.

Study leader Mike Lawrence, of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, Australia said in a media release: "Both insulin and its receptor undergo rearrangement as they interact. A piece of insulin folds out and key pieces within the receptor move to engage the insulin hormone. You might call it a 'molecular handshake.'"

The researchers describe the finding as a ‘breakthrough’ for diabetes treatment, explaining it has taken decades to find out exactly how insulin facilitates glucose transport into cells. The finding could mean the end of insulin injections for people living with the disease.

Case Western Reserve University
January 9, 2013

Image credit: Morguefile