Slow-Moving Snails Make Fast-Acting Insulin

September 12, 2016 | Erica Tennenhouse

cone snail
Photo credit: Cone snail hunting a fish. Courtesy of Baldomero Olivera.

Cone snail venom could inspire new drugs for treatment of diabetes.

Insulin — a life-saving drug for diabetics — is also the deadly weapon of choice for aquatic cone snails, which release a specialized version of insulin to rapidly stun their fish prey before eating them alive.

The cone snail insulin works so quickly that it could improve upon current fast-acting therapeutic insulin, potentially leading to new drugs for treating diabetes, according to a new paper in Nature Structural & Molecular Biology.

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“You look at what venoms animals make to affect the physiology of their prey, and you use that as a starting point," says study co-author Helena Safavi of the University of Utah in a press release. "You can get new ideas from venoms. To have something that has already been evolved -- that's a huge advantage."

Human insulin gets secreted from the pancreas, stimulating the body’s cells to take up glucose from the bloodstream. When insulin production is impaired, blood glucose becomes elevated, resulting in diabetes. Synthetic insulin injections are commonly used as treatment.

When insulin is stored in the pancreas, groups of six molecules will stick together. Even injected insulin molecules must break apart before they can take action in the body, and this process of de-aggregation can take up to an hour. According to the press release, even the fastest-acting insulin on the market can take anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes to become active.

But the researchers discovered that the cone snail insulin doesn’t aggregate, so even though it’s less effective than the human version, it can act much faster. "Now we can look at the human insulin and see if we can make it more snail-like," says Safavi.

Drug design is a challenging area for scientists, and inspiration from nature is always welcome. "People think it's easy to make drugs," Safavi remarks. "But where do you start? You have to have some kind of idea of what a drug should look like, what kind of properties the drug should have, so it's very difficult to design novel drugs. That's why we use the snail venom system."

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