Discovery lays groundwork for new diabetes treatments

Many diabetics rely on insulin injections, but a new discovery could see alternative treatments emerge. photoeditorvision/Flickr

New treatments for diabetes are set to be developed, following a discovery about the way insulin works inside the human body.

In a study published today in the journal Nature, researchers from the Walter & Eliza Hall Institute detail their discovery of how insulin docks on cells.

The researchers say the discovery paves the way for insulin treatments that could be given without the need for an injection, and also has ramifications for diabetes treatment in developing nations, by creating insulin that is less likely to degrade when not kept cold.

However, diabetics looking for a quick new treatment solution are likely to be disappointed, with clinical solutions expected to be many years away.

“The translation of this research to clinical use could take decades,” said Professor Paul Zimmet of the Baker IDI Heart & Diabetes Institute.

The discovery has been more than 20 years in the making, and comes as Australia faces an increasing epidemic of type 2 diabetes. More than one million Australians are currently living with diabetes, with more than 100,000 new diagnoses each year.

“Understanding how insulin interacts with the insulin receptor is fundamental to the development of novel insulins for the treatment of diabetes,” said Associate Professor Mike Lawrence of the Walter & Eliza Hall Institute.

“Until now we have not been able to see how these molecules interact with cells. We can now exploit this knowledge to design new insulin medications with improved properties, which is very exciting,” Professor Lawrence said.

Such medications could be 10 to 20 years away, said Professor Zimmet.

“Insulin must be given by injection because as a protein, it is destroyed by the stomach acid so can’t be given orally. This discovery may mean that "designer” molecules could be made to simulate the insulin/insulin receptor interaction, and they might be then taken by mouth. It is a possibility but by no means a certainty.

“It’s an enticing possibility but I don’t think we will see the clinical translation very soon,” Professor Zimmet said.

The research involved collaboration with the University of Chicago, University of New York, and the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry in Prague.

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