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The primary mechanism that spurs on the development of type 2 diabetes is impaired insulin production. Insulin is a hormone that regulates blood sugar – the main type of sugar found in blood. Unconstrained blood sugar levels can cause a cascade of health problems, some of which can be life-threatening. However, a novel treatment has been discovered that can boost insulin production, stabilising blood sugar levels in the process.
A molecule found in tarantula venom may be responsible for countering the key mechanism that drives type 2 diabetes.
The findings, presented today at the Diabetes UK Professional Conference (DUKPC) 2021, builds on previous research led by Professor Nigel Irwin at Ulster University, which found the venom of the Mexican blonde tarantula increases insulin production and lowers blood sugar levels.
These new findings, by PhD student Aimee Coulter Parkhill, pinpoint the molecule that could hold the key: ΔTRTX-Ac1.
To test their hypothesis, the research team led by Parkhill developed a synthetic version of ΔTRTX-Ac1, to uncover whether it has the same effect on insulin-producing beta cells of the pancreas in lab conditions, as well as in mice.
Beta cells are unique cells in the pancreas that produce, store and release the hormone insulin.
The researchers found that ΔTRTX-Ac1 increased insulin secretion from pancreatic beta cells in the lab more than two-fold.
The venom molecule may be controlling channels on the surface of beta cells, acting as the gatekeeper that allows other molecules to flow in and out of the cells.
ΔTRTX-Ac1 also improved beta cell growth, and didn’t damage the cells, making it a potential future treatment that warrants further investigation.
When injected into mice alongside glucose, ΔTRTX-Ac1 steadily reduced blood sugar levels over the course of an hour, suggesting it is able to ramp up insulin release in mice, as well as in cells in the lab.
ΔTRTX-Ac1 also reduced food intake in mice, suggesting it may act to suppress appetite.
Next, the researchers plan to uncover exactly how ΔTRTX-Ac1 functions, as well as assessing its effectiveness over longer periods of time in animal models of diabetes.
Aimee Coulter Parkhill, PhD student at Ulster University, said: “Tarantula venom contains millions of biologically active molecules that may have therapeutic potential. This research highlights one specific molecule from the venom of the Mexican Blonde tarantula which shows promise in treating diabetes. We are excited to follow up on our pilot studies to understand how ΔTRTX-Ac1 could in future help people living with type 2 diabetes.”
Dr Elizabeth Robertson, Director of Research at Diabetes UK, which funded the study, said: “This innovative research has revealed a promising new treatment avenue that could in future help improve or restore beta cell function in people living with type 2 diabetes. It is hoped that research such as this will ultimately lead to the development of new therapies to help people with type 2 diabetes manage their condition better and reduce their risk of serious diabetes-related complications.
“We look forward to further studies to explore whether tarantula venom-based therapy could be developed to be effective and safe in people, providing a new weapon in the armoury for treating type 2 diabetes.”
Other ways to enhance insulin production
There are other possible ways to reduce the effects of insulin resistance, which can help to stabilise blood sugar levels.
According to Diabetes.co.uk, effective methods include:
- Low-carbohydrate and ketogenic diets
- Very-low-calorie diets
- Weight loss surgery
- Taking a lot of exercise in combination with a healthy diet.
“These methods share a similar way of working in that they all help to reduce the body’s need for insulin and help people to lose weight,” explains the health body.
How do I know if I have type 2 diabetes?
Many people have type 2 diabetes without realising. This is because symptoms do not necessarily make you feel unwell.
Symptoms of type 2 diabetes include:
- Peeing more than usual, particularly at night
- Feling thirsty all the time
- Feeling very tired
- Losing weight without trying to
- Itching around your penis or vagina, or repeatedly getting thrush
- Cuts or wounds taking longer to heal
- Blurred vision.
“See a GP if you have any of the symptoms of type 2 diabetes or you’re worried you may have a higher risk of getting type 2 diabetes,” advises the NHS.