Researchers find mechanism that controls insulin production

A team of Johns Hopkins University researchers may have discovered the chemical switch that signals beta cells in the pancreas to begin secreting insulin. They said that their findings could have major implications for treating type 2 diabetes.

The researchers noted in their report, which was published in the journal Cell Metabolism, that the process behind insulin production was poorly understood before their study. Scientists knew that some mechanism was turning on and off insulin production, but they had yet to observe this process in action.

For the current study, the researchers focused their search on a protein known as SNAPIN. They knew that it was active in nerve cells as part of a signaling mechanism and that it was also present in the pancreas. However, its role in the pancreas was unknown.

To test the effects of this molecule, the researchers genetically engineered a set of lab mice so that the protein was permanently active in the pancreas. Sure enough, they found that these mice produced about three times the amount of insulin as normal mice.

"We were surprised to find that the SNAPIN-on mice didn't have more or bigger pancreas cells, they just made more insulin naturally," said Mehboob Hussain, who led the study. "This means all our insulin-secreting cells have this amazing reserve of insulin that we didn't really know existed and a switch that controls it."

These findings could lead to major improvements in drugs used to treat type 2 diabetes. It was previously thought that the insulin-producing beta cells of individuals with the disease were simply unable to generate insulin in the quantities necessary. However, the results suggest that flipping the SNAPIN switch could get these cells to produce more insulin.
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