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Snail Insulin Picks Up Speed For Diabetic Community

Baldomero Olivera

Snails are certainly sluggish and may seem unassuming, but some possess a powerful weapon: insulin. And this insulin may provide a sweet development for the diabetic community. Insulin is a component of some snail venoms, and scientists have discovered the insulin from these slow-moving creatures could provide a framework for developing a faster-acting treatment to help control blood sugar levels in the human body.

The insulin in cone snail venom may start working in as little as 5 minutes compared to 15 minutes for the fastest-acting synthetic insulin currently on the market.

Helena Safavi is a research assistant professor at the University of Utah and coauthor on a new study published in Nature Structural and Molecular Biology. She and her colleagues have been studying a sea-dwelling cone snail that stores insulin in its arsenal of “bioweapons.” 

“[A cone snail] is a predatory marine snail that produces venom to prey on fish, worms, and other snails. The venom is produced to very quickly immobilize prey,” Safavi said.

Many cone snails secrete neurotoxins, while others produce insulin as part of the venomous mixture. The insulin induces low-blood sugar in the prey, effectively causing a “no-sugar” coma—a pretty clever antic to get a tasty treat.

“There’s been a lot of work done on cone snail venoms for therapeutic purposes. When we discovered the venom contained insulin, it really opened the door to investigate its therapeutic use for diabetes,” Safavi said. “These snails have many millions of years figuring out how to design drugs.”

The snail’s insulin is speedy and may start working in as little as 5 minutes compared to 15 minutes for the fastest-acting medication currently on the market. Scientists uncovered a distinct difference between human and snail insulin that accounted for this change in pace.

Danny Chou, an assistant professor of biochemistry at the University of Utah and co-author on the study, explained that human insulin molecules are sticky—they are stored clumped together. Before the insulin can do its job, the molecules must break apart. That takes time, even for the fastest-acting treatment available. Snail insulin, on the other hand, is smaller in size and lacks that sticky nature. This explains its ability to act very quickly and is exactly what the snail needs to capture swift-moving fish.

Although the snail insulin may act faster, it’s not quite as effective as it needs to be for human use. Scientists have a plan though.

“We can use snail insulin as a guide to redevelop a human insulin,” said Chou.

Scientists are now modifying snail and human insulin hoping to produce a faster-acting treatment while still preserving potency. Chou is excited about the potential this work has for those needing synthetic insulin injections.

“It is still very hard for people with diabetes to maintain their blood sugar level within the perfect range. [A faster-acting insulin] will help people regulate their levels even better,” Chou said.