Hybrid Insulin: Scientists Find Adding Sea Snail Venom May Boost Diabetes Treatments

Scientists have utilized the venom of predatory cone snails to create a hybrid insulin for humans. They said the new version of the important hormone may soon help people with diabetes to rapidly control their blood sugar. 

The new study, published in Nature Structural and Molecular Biology, describes the hybrid insulin as the world's smallest version of the hormone. An international team of researchers including University of Utah Health used the venom from Conus geographus for the study. 

The cone snails use their venom to hunt fish in coral reefs. The plumes they release contain a unique form of insulin that causes fish blood glucose levels to rapidly decline, leading to temporary paralysis.

Earlier study showed that the venomous insulin had many biochemical traits similar in human insulin. The one from cone snails even appeared working faster than the hormones in humans.

"We now have the capability to create a hybrid version of insulin that works in humans and that also appears to have many of the positive attributes of cone snail insulin," Danny Hung-Chieh Chou, study corresponding author and assistant professor of biochemistry at U of U Health, said in a statement. "That's an important step forward in our quest to make diabetes treatment safer and more effective."

Having a faster-acting insulin may help people better manage hyperglycemia and other serious complications of diabetes, according to Helena Safavi, study co-author and an assistant professor at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. It is also expected to help enhance insulin pumps or artificial pancreas devices.

Making The Hybrid Insulin

The cone snail insulin acts faster in the body because it lacks a "hinge" component, which in humans causes the hormone to aggregate or clump together before they work on blood sugar. For the fish-hunting species, insulin does not aggregate, which makes it ready to spread in the body almost immediately.

"We had the idea of making human insulin more snail-like," Safavi said. "So, we sought to basically take some of the advantageous properties from the snail and graft them onto the human compound."

The researchers created the hybrid insulin by first improving the potency of the snail's insulin. They took certain amino acids from the samples and combined them with human molecules to form an insulin treatment.

Tests in animals showed that the hybrid insulin molecule, which the scientists call "mini-insulin," interacted with insulin receptors with high potency. It even appeared working as strong as normal human insulin and even faster. 

Chou said the very small hybrid insulin has the potential to be “a prime candidate” for the development of a new generation of diabetes treatments. 

diabetes The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that there are more than 100 million adults living with diabetes or prediabetes in the U.S. Pixabay