LA JOLLA, CA Researchers at the Salk Institute have discovered how a hormone turns on a series of molecular switches inside the pancreas that increases production of insulin.
The finding, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, raises the possibility that new designer drugs might be able to turn on key molecules in this pathway to help the 80 million Americans who have type 2 diabetes or pre-diabetic insulin resistance.
The molecular switches command pancreatic beta islet cells, the cells responsible for insulin, to grow and multiply. Tweaking these cells might offer a solution to type 1 diabetes, the form of diabetes caused by destruction of islet cells, and to type II diabetes, the form caused by insulin resistance.
"By understanding how pancreatic cells can be encouraged to produce insulin in the most efficient way possible, we may be able to manipulate those cells to treat or even prevent diabetes," says the study's lead author, Marc Montminy, a professor in the Clayton Foundation Laboratories for Peptide Biology at Salk.
Such new agents might increase the functioning of beta islet cells even in people who have not developed diabetes.
"The truth is that as we grow older, these islet cells tend to wear out," Montminy says. "The genetic switches just don't get turned on as efficiently as they did when we were younger, even if we don't develop diabetes. It's like using a garage door opener so many times, the battery wears out. We need a way to continually refresh that battery."
Type II diabetes is caused by an inability for insulin to stimulate muscles to take up glucose, a kind of sugar, from the bloodstream after eating. Age is a risk factor for diabetes, as is obesity, genetic predisposition and lack of physical exercise.
Montminy and two researchers in his lab, Sam Van de Velde, a post-doctoral research associate, and Megan F. Hogan, a graduate studen
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