For decades, patients with diabetes have been waiting for a treatment that would block the breakdown of insulin in their bodies. More than 50 years ago, researchers suggested it was possible to treat the disease by blocking insulin breakdown. The Mayo Clinic reports a research team led by one of its scientists has finally developed powerful molecules that can accomplish this.
Why Insulin is Important
The levels of blood glucose – or sugar – are too high in individuals who suffer from diabetes. According to MedlinePlus, the role of the hormone insulin is to help get glucose from foods into the body’s cells to produce energy.
When a patient suffers from Type 1 diabetes, his or her body produces no insulin. In the case of the more common Type 2, an individual’s body either doesn’t manufacture insulin well or use the hormone efficiently. Globally, diabetes affects more than 200 million individuals, and the incidence is growing rapidly.
Current diabetes treatment is varied. The most common options are weight control, dietary modifications, insulin and other medications. The alternatives for some patients include kidney, pancreas and islet cell transplants, the American Diabetes Association reports. The goal of all types of treatment is controlling blood glucose levels. However, many diabetics still suffer from tragic complications such as blindness and limb amputations. .
How the Molecules Work
The lead researcher of the team that developed molecules to block insulin breakdown is Malcolm Leissring, Ph.D., of Mayo’s Department of Neuroscience. Leissring believes that the team’s discovery could lead to new treatments, drugs that will help insulin work longer and more efficiently. These medications would make up a new class of drugs for treating diabetes.
The miniscule molecules the researchers produced inhibit insulin-degrading enzyme (IDE) in the body. IDE is the substance that prevents the proper use of insulin. The new molecules function by helping insulin remain longer in the body. This in turn helps remove excess glucose from the patient’s blood.
Leissring indicated that as a protease, IDE chops proteins or peptides into smaller bits. He added that since scientists have developed inhibitors for most important proteases in the body, his researchers were surprised that experts have never developed them for IDE.
One of the difficulties diabetes researchers have faced in the last 50 years is the structure of IDE, which is unlike that of other proteases. It resembles a hinged clam shell that opens and closes.
In most individuals, the liver immediately destroys around 50 percent of the insulin the pancreas produces. Leissring admits that experts don’t know why this happens. Normally, IDE quickly destroys insulin that reaches a cell. The molecules his team developed should stop this process by creating an IDE inhibitor. The result is that insulin remains longer in the cell and can function more efficiently.
The Mayo Clinic has not speculated on how soon a diabetic might be able to take advantage of a new treatment using molecules the team developed. However, researchers believe IDE inhibitors could also benefit patients suffering from other conditions.
Insulin is a crucial hormone in many of the body’s activities, among them memory and cognition. For this reason, researchers speculate that the development of IDE inhibitors is likely to solve many medical problems linked to the breakdown of insulin.
Mayo Clinic site
American Diabetes Association site