For people with type 1 diabetes, insulin is a life-saving drug. The body needs insulin to manage sugar in the blood.
If people with diabetes get too little or too much insulin, their blood sugar levels can swing out of control.
This can be dangerous. However, recent research from the University of Copenhagen suggests that our understanding of how insulin works in the body might not be entirely correct.
Old Assumptions and New Findings
In the body, insulin doesn’t act alone. It forms clusters, or groups, of molecules. Single insulin molecules work quickly, but clusters of six molecules, called hexamers, work slowly.
For many years, scientists thought they knew how these clusters formed. They believed there was a certain distribution of clusters of one, two, or six molecules. Drug companies have been making insulin based on this assumption.
However, the researchers from Copenhagen, working with Aarhus University, have discovered that the old understanding is wrong.
They used a powerful microscope to look at insulin molecules and found fewer single molecules and more hexamers than expected.
This suggests that when people with diabetes take insulin, they might be getting less of the quick-acting insulin than they thought.
The researchers don’t think this finding is dangerous for people with diabetes. But it does suggest that there’s room to improve diabetes treatment.
If drug companies can make insulin that better matches the body’s actual behavior, people with diabetes might be able to manage their blood sugar more effectively.
A More Detailed Understanding of Insulin
The old understanding of insulin was a simple model. It didn’t take into account all the details of how insulin molecules cluster together. But the new research provides a more detailed picture.
It could help drug companies develop better insulin treatments. The researchers hope that their method can be used to check current insulin treatments and to create new ones.
To make their discovery, the researchers combined chemistry, machine learning, simulations, and advanced microscopy. They directly observed how insulin molecules cluster together, looking at about 50,000 clusters.
This gave them insight into the exact distribution of different cluster types in insulin, which is important for creating both quick-acting and long-acting insulin treatments.
The Potential for Improved Diabetes Care
The new findings suggest that the process of insulin clustering is more complex than previously thought. Clusters can grow and shrink in more ways than scientists used to believe.
This new understanding could lead to insulin treatments that work differently, perhaps smoothing out the swings in blood sugar that many people with diabetes experience.
The researchers believe that their findings could help improve life for people with diabetes.
Better insulin treatments could help manage blood sugar more effectively, preventing the complications that can come with poorly managed diabetes.
As Professor Knud J. Jensen, a researcher on the study, puts it: “if life can be made better for children by making better insulin, that’s fantastic.”
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For more information about diabetes, please see recent studies about how to cure type 2 diabetes successfully, and results showing blood pressure rising at night may double the death risk in people with diabetes.
The study was published in Communications Biology.
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