Diabetes is a disease that causes the level of blood sugar to become too high. In healthy individuals, two hormones – insulin and glucagon – work together to keep blood sugar level normal.
On one hand, insulin is released when the blood sugar level becomes too high; on the other hand, glucagon is released when the blood sugar level becomes too low.
Many people with diabetes cannot produce insulin and thus rely on regular insulin injections. The injections ensure the blood sugar does not reach dangerous high levels. Although these injections save lives, they cannot achieve and maintain the levels of blood sugar found in healthy people.
Research has shown that when the cells that produce insulin – known as beta-cells – are destroyed, mice will develop diabetes. However, this is not the only cause of diabetes.
Recently, scientists found that block glucagon can also prevent diabetes in mice, even though their beta-cells are destroyed. This implies a new way to treat diabetes.
In a recent study published in eLife, scientists clarified the findings. They found that if all beta-cells were gone, blocking glucagon could not prevent diabetes in mice. Nevertheless, if a certain number of beta-cells were still there, blocking glucagon could prevent diabetes.
This raises the question of whether we can replace some of the beta-cells and inhibit glucagon, instead of giving insulin injections. Researchers suggest that if a diabetic patient cannot produce any insulin, s/he will not benefit from blocking glucagon.
However, if a diabetic patient still has enough beta-cells to properly respond to changes in blood sugar levels, inhibiting the glucagon might be a useful treatment method.
This is a good news for patients who do not depend on insulin injections. These patients often have beta-cells to produce insulin, but not enough to meet the demand. Usually, they can change lifestyle and diet to reduce symptoms, but drugs that block glucagon may also help them.
Future work will find out how many beta-cells will be needed for glucagon blockers to be an effective treatment of diabetes.
Citations: Eliasson L, Wendt A. (2016). Partners for life. Elife, 5. pii: e16798. doi: 10.7554/eLife.16798.
Damond N, Thorel F, Moyers JS, Charron MJ, Vuguin PM, Powers AC, Herrera PL. 2016. Blockade of glucagon signaling prevents or reverses diabetes onset only if residual β-cells persist. eLife 5:e13828. doi: 10.7554/eLife.13828
Figure legend: This Knowridge.com image is derived from the cited article under CC-BY license.