Fishing for clues

Insulin produced by cone snails could help design better diabetes treatments.

A cone snail captures a goby by releasing insulin, which induces low blood sugar levels in the fish and hinders it to flee. Image credit: Dylan Taylor (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Insulin is a hormone critical for maintaining healthy blood sugar levels in humans. When the insulin system becomes faulty, blood sugar levels become too high, which can lead to diabetes. At the moment, the only effective treatment for one of the major types of diabetes are daily insulin injections. However, designing fast-acting insulin drugs has remained a challenge. Insulin molecules form clusters (so-called hexamers) that first have to dissolve in the body to activate the insulin receptor, which plays a key role in regulating the blood sugar levels throughout the body. This can take time and can therefore delay the blood-sugar control.

In 2015, researchers discovered that the fish-hunting cone snail Conus geographus uses a specific type of insulin to capture its prey – fish. The cone snail releases insulin into the surrounding water and then engulfs its victim with its mouth. This induces dangerously low blood sugar levels in the fish and so makes them an easy target. Unlike the human version, the snail insulin does not cluster, and despite structural differences, can bind to the human insulin receptor.

Now, Ahorukomeye, Disotuar et al. – including some of the authors involved in the previous study – wanted to find out whether other fish-hunting cone snails also make insulins and if they differed from the one previously discovered in C. geographus. The insulin molecules were extracted and analyzed, and the results showed that the three cone snail species had different versions of insulin – but none of them formed clusters. Ahorukomeye, Disotuar et al. further revealed that the snail insulins could bind to the human insulin receptors and could also reverse high blood sugar levels in fish and mouse models of the disease.

This research may help guide future studies looking into developing fast-acting insulin drugs for diabetic patients. A next step will be to fully understand how snail insulins can be active at the human receptor without forming clusters. Cone snails solved this problem millions of years ago and by understanding how they have done this, researchers are hoping to redesign current diabetic therapeutics. Since the snail insulins do not form clusters and should act faster than currently available insulin drugs, they may lead to better or new diabetes treatments.