New drugs that affect hormones which regulate blood sugar levels being developed

by Barbara Hewitt on May 19, 2017

Insights into the role of hormone called ghrelin could lead to the development of new drugs to treat diabetes, according to research from the United States.

The researchers from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Centre had already been looking at how blood glucose levels are tightly regulated by the opposing actions of the hormones insulin and glucagon.


They found that experimentally deleting or neutralising receptors for glucagon can prevent or correct dangerously high blood glucose levels in different models of diabetes and decided to see if blocking or neutralizing glucagon actions could lead to new treatments.

Dr Jeffrey Zigman, professor of internal medicine and psychiatry, explained that like glucagon and insulin, ghrelin also plays an important role in blood glucose control. But because the hormone was only discovered in the 1990s, ghrelin’s actions on blood glucose haven’t been studied as much as those of glucagon and insulin.

The UTSW research team wanted to learn more about the role of ghrelin in diabetes. ‘We studied mice that lack glucagon receptors. When we tried to make these animals diabetic by giving them an agent that destroys insulin producing cells, the mice did not develop diabetes. Their blood sugar was normal,’ said Zigman.

In addition to these results the researchers found that their ghrelin levels were high and in a related set of studies, when the researchers blocked the action of the elevated ghrelin, doing so caused the animals’ blood sugar levels to drop below normal.

‘These findings suggest that when glucagon activity is blocked, circulating levels of ghrelin rise, which helps to prevent dangerously low blood sugars from developing, a condition known as hypoglycaemia,’ Zigman pointed out.

Pharmaceutical companies are now developing drugs targeting glucagon receptors to treat diabetes, including antibodies that will neutralize glucagon receptors or drugs that will block glucagon receptors.

‘The body’s normal ghrelin response should protect diabetic individuals being treated with agents that target glucagon receptors from experiencing hypoglycaemia,’ Zigman added.

The researchers are now planning to extend their studies to examine the co-ordinated actions of the ghrelin and glucagon systems in a type 2 diabetes model and they also want to study the impact of ghrelin on hypoglycaemia.

‘A potential side effect with any treatment that lowers blood sugar is that hypoglycaemia may develop. We would like to determine whether the administration of ghrelin or a compound that mimics the action of ghrelin could help correct that hypoglycaemia,’ Zigman concluded.

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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