JDRF, the type 1 diabetes charityNewsResearch progress: Sea snail venom could lead to better, faster insulins for type 1 diabetes

Research progress: Sea snail venom could lead to better, faster insulins for type 1 diabetes

Posted on 09 June 2020

Cone snail hunting fish using its insulin
The sea snail (right) has a venom that rapidly lowers the blood glucose of its prey. JDRF researchers have developed a fast-acting insulin based on this venom.

JDRF-funded researchers have developed a fast-acting insulin based on the venom of a predatory sea snail, which could make managing type 1 diabetes easier and safer.

The fish-hunting snail uses its venom to rapidly lower the blood glucose levels of its prey, stunning them with hypoglycaemia.

By mimicking the venom’s structure, the researchers developed an insulin that was as effective as human insulin, but much faster.

If the insulin is found to be safe and effective for use in humans, it could put an end to injecting in advance of meals, and pave the way for fully automated artificial pancreas systems.

Best of both worlds

One of the challenges to developing faster insulins is that human insulin naturally clumps together. This is useful when it needs to be stored in the pancreas, but it means that people with type 1 need to wait for their insulin dose to break apart before it gets to work.

It is also a major barrier to fully automated artificial pancreas systems, as by the time these systems detect rising blood glucose levels, the insulin they provide will not work quickly enough to bring blood glucose levels down.

In contrast, the sea snail’s venom is just a single molecule, so it acts much more quickly. However, on its own, it is not as effective at lowering blood glucose in humans.

That is why this research team, led by JDRF researcher Dr Danny Hung-Chieh Chou at the University of Utah, designed a hybrid insulin molecule – containing elements from both snail venom and human insulin – to be the best of both worlds.

The molecule, which they dubbed ‘mini-insulin’, combines the effectiveness of human insulin with the speed of the sea snail venom.

In tests, the team found that mini-insulin was as effective in rats as human insulin injections, but much faster acting.

Next generation of insulins

Dr Chou said: “Mini-insulin has tremendous potential. With just a few strategic substitutions, we have generated a potent, fast-acting molecular structure that is the smallest, fully-active insulin to date.

He added: “Because it is so small, it should be easy to synthesise, making it a prime candidate for the development of a new generation of insulin therapeutics.”

Conor McKeever, Research Communications Manager at JDRF, said: “Ultra-rapid insulins would give people with type 1 diabetes a lot more flexibility in their diabetes management.

“Not only could they eliminate the lag between injecting and reducing blood glucose, but they could enable us to create artificial pancreas systems that can take over the management of type 1 diabetes 24/7.

“That’s why they are a key part of our work to improve the lives of people with type 1, until we find a cure.”

The research was published in the journal Nature Structural and Molecular Biology.

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