Insulin Goes Viral?
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Insulin Goes Viral?

News Staff — Joslin Diabetes Center
Feb 26, 2018

Some viruses produce insulin-like hormones that can stimulate human cells...

(Boston, MA) -- Every cell in your body responds to the hormone insulin, and if that process starts to fail, you get diabetes. In an unexpected finding, scientists at Joslin Diabetes Center have identified four viruses that can produce insulin-like hormones that are active on human cells. The discovery brings new possibilities for revealing biological mechanisms that may cause diabetes or cancer.

"Our research may help open up a new field that we might call microbial endocrinology," says Emrah Altindis, PhD, a Joslin research fellow and lead author on a paper in the journal PNAS on the work. "We show that these viral insulin-like peptides can act on human and rodent cells. With the very large number of microbial peptides to which we are exposed, there is a novel window for host-microbe interactions. We hope that studying these processes will help us to better understand the role of microbes in human disease."

"Indeed, the discovery of the viral insulin-like hormones raises the question of what their role might be in diabetes, as well as autoimmune disease, cancer and other metabolic conditions," says C. Ronald Kahn, MD, Joslin's chief academic officer and senior author on the paper.

The key idea for the investigation came when Altindis, whose previous research focused on creating vaccines against bacteria, attended a Joslin seminar that discussed potential causes of the autoimmune reaction that drives type 1 diabetes. He began to hypothesize whether bacteria or viruses could create insulin-like peptides (small versions of proteins) that could help to trigger the disease.

By analyzing large public research databases that hold viral genomic sequences, he and his colleagues at Joslin found that various viruses can produce peptides that are similar in whole or in part to 16 human hormones and regulatory proteins.

"What really caught our attention were four viruses that had insulin-like sequences," says Kahn, who is also the Mary K. Iacocca Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School.

These viruses were from a family of viruses known to infect fish. To find out if they could be active in mammals, the Joslin team collaborated with Richard DiMarchi, professor of chemistry at Indiana University, whose lab chemically synthesized these viral insulin-like peptides (VILPs)…

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