Insulin breakthrough could improve the lives of millions of diabetics
13 Feb 2013
For decades medical scientists have been trying to understand exactly how insulin works with cells. Insulin's structure was discovered in 1969, but how it binds to cells has remained a mystery till now. The process has been likened to a secret handshake which signals for the cells to take sugar from the blood.
Researchers from Melbourne's Walter and Eliza Hall Institute have finally cracked the case. With the help of a star-studded team from the CSIRO and the Australian Synchroton, as well as scientists fromthe US, UK and the Czech Republic , they now have a 3D picture of insulin binding with its receptor on the surface of cells.
Associate Professor Mike Lawrence, Ms Mai Margetts, Dr Geoffrey Kong and Dr John Menting (from left to right) are part of the research team. Photo courtesy of Walter and Eliza Hall Institute.
The institute has intellectual property protections over its novel research. These are invaluable for extensive collaborations because they define ownership over what could eventually be commercialised.
Major pharmaceutical companies have already expressed an interest. Associate Professor Mike Lawrence says, "Patents are an important bargaining chip, either in discussions with established companies or in the context of raising capital for start-up ventures."
The breakthrough opens the door to dramatically improve the lives of millions of diabetics. This could mean new types of insulin that don't require injections, or don't need to be taken as often.
Lawrence says, "It may also have ramifications for diabetes treatment in developing nations, by creating insulin that is more stable and less likely to degrade when not kept cold, an angle being pursued by our collaborators. Our findings provide a new platform for developing these kinds of medications."
The research stands on the shoulders of New Zealand scientist Guy Dodson, who began his work on insulin at OxfordUniversity in 1967. Dodson directly collaborated with the institute on this recent breakthrough. However he died recently at age 75, just weeks before the team's findings were published. The publication was dedicated in his memory. In classic British understatement, the UK Guardian wrote in his obituary, "Guy never really retired".
Did you know?
The institute's research relied on:
- An enormous X-ray beam - known as the Australian Synchrotron MX2 microcrystallography beamline. This device fires electrons to speeds approaching that of light producing rays more intense than the sun. The Melbourne-based facility enabled the team to examine insulin and its receptor in a crystalline structure.
- A Chinese hamster - the researchers engineered ovary cells from this animal to produce the insulin receptor.
- Cow insulin - this was combined with the receptor in a stable crystalline state that could be examined in the synchrotron.
- Time and money - scientists such as Guy Dodson can devote their entire working career to solving problems of this sort.
- Patent protection - patents are invaluable for attracting the millions of dollars of investment needed to bring important medical breakthroughs to market.
Last Updated: 14/2/2013