Muscle disorder highlights calcium’s role in blood sugar control

Malignant hyperthermia illuminates how high calcium levels in muscle disrupt sugar levels in our blood and contribute towards diabetes.

Microscope image showing the enzyme that converts glucose into glycogen (red) located at the site where calcium is stored in the muscle cell of a patient with malignant hyperthermia susceptibility. Image credit: Eshwar Tammineni, Carlo Manno, Lourdes Figueroa and Eduardo Ríos (CC BY 4.0)

Animals and humans move by contracting the skeletal muscles attached to their bones. These muscles take up a type of sugar called glucose from food and use it to fuel contractions or store it for later in the form of glycogen. If muscles fail to use glucose it can lead to excessive sugar levels in the blood and a condition called diabetes. Within muscle cells are stores of calcium that signal the muscle to contract. Changes in calcium levels enhance the uptake of glucose that fuel these contractions. However, variations in calcium have also been linked to diabetes, and it remained unclear when and how these ‘signals’ become harmful.

People with a condition called malignant hyperthermia susceptibility (MHS for short) have genetic mutations that allow calcium to leak out from these stores. This condition may result in excessive contractions causing the muscle to over-heat, become rigid and break down, which can lead to death if left untreated. A clinical study in 2019 found that out of hundreds of patients who had MHS, nearly half had high blood sugar and were likely to develop diabetes. Now, Tammineni et al. – including some of the researchers involved in the 2019 study – have set out to find why calcium leaks lead to elevated blood sugar levels.

The experiments showed that enzymes that help convert glycogen to glucose are more active in patients with MHS, and found in different locations inside muscle cells. Whereas the enzymes that change glucose into glycogen are less active. This slows down the conversion of glucose into glycogen for storage and speeds up the breakdown of glycogen into glucose. Patients with MHS also had fewer molecules that transport glucose into muscle cells and stored less glycogen. These changes imply that less glucose is being removed from the blood.

Next, Tammineni et al. used a microscopy technique that is able to distinguish finely separated objects with a precision not reached before in living muscle. This revealed that when the activity of the enzyme that breaks down glycogen increased, it moved next to the calcium store. This effect was also observed in the muscle cells of MHS patients that leaked calcium from their stores. Taken together, these observations may explain why patients with MHS have high levels of sugar in their blood.

These findings suggest that MHS may start decades before developing diabetes and blood sugar levels in these patients should be regularly monitored. Future studies should investigate whether drugs that block calcium from leaking may help prevent high blood sugar in patients with MHS or other conditions that cause a similar calcium leak.