Marine snail venom could be basis of new diabetes treatment

by Barbara Hewitt on September 14, 2016

Venom extracted from a species of marine snail could hold the key to a new more efficient treatment for diabetes through the development of super fast acting insulins, scientists have discovered.

Researchers from Australia and the United States have successfully determined the three dimensional structure of insulin found in cone snail venom, revealing how this highly efficient natural protein called Con-Ins G1 can operate faster than human insulin.

Cone Snail

(Copyright (c) 2005 Richard Ling)

The team from Walter and Eliza hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, the University of Utah, the Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences, La Trobe University and Flinders University discovered that Con-Ins G1 is able to bind to human insulin receptors, signifying the potential for its translation into a human therapeutic treatment.

Associate Professor Mike Lawrence from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research who led the collaborative study described the results as exciting.

‘We found that cone snail venom insulins work faster than human insulins by avoiding the structural changes that human insulins undergo in order to function. They are essentially primed and ready to bind to their receptors,’ he said, adding that human insulins could be considered ‘clunky’ by comparison.

‘The structure of human insulins contain an extra ‘hinge’ component that has to open before any molecular handshake or connection between insulin and receptor can take place. By studying the three dimensional structure of this snail venom insulin we’ve found how to dispense with this hinge entirely, which may accelerate the cell signalling process and thus the speed with which the insulin takes effect,’ he added.

The team’s findings build on earlier studies from 2015, when the University of Utah reported that the marine cone snail Conus geographus used an insulin based venom to trap its prey. Unsuspecting fish prey would swim into the invisible trap and immediately become immobilised in a state of hypoglycaemic shock induced by the venom.

Dr Helena Safavi-Hemami from the University of Utah said it was fascinating to uncover how the cone snail insulin was able to have such a rapid effect on its prey and, furthermore, that the peptide had therapeutic potential in humans.

‘We were thrilled to find that the principles of cone snail venom insulins could be applied to a human setting. Our Flinders University colleagues have shown that the cone snail insulin can ‘switch on’ human insulin cell signalling pathways, meaning the cone snail insulin is able to successfully bind to human receptors,’ she explained.

‘The next step in our research, which is already underway, is to apply these findings to the design of new and better treatments for diabetes, giving patients access to faster acting insulins,’ she added.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the Community and should not be interpreted as medical advice. Please see your doctor before making any changes to your diabetes management plan.

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