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A new UNH study finds deadly cone snails could lead to promising diabetes treatments

A photo of an orange and brown cone snail shell. It is patterned with small rectangles. It sits on a bed of rocks and other shells.
Rickard Zerpe
But a recent study from the University of New Hampshire found these deadly cone snails could lead to promising new treatments for diabetes.

Cone snails use their venom to immobilize and kill their prey by lowering blood sugar levels and sending them into hypoglycemic shock. There have even been reports of human fatalities.

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But a recent study from the University of New Hampshire found that these deadly creatures could lead to promising new treatments for diabetes.

The cone snail venom intrigued Harish Vashisth, a chemical engineering professor. In a recently published study, he and lead author Biswajit Gorai explored how variants of the snails’ insulin-like venom could bind to human insulin receptors.

Insulin is produced in human bodies in large clusters. But fast-acting insulin treatments try to release a single molecule of insulin at a time, because receptor proteins only recognize a single molecule of insulin, Vashisth said. And the cone snail’s insulin is naturally one molecule.

“It was a huge surprise when the discovery was made by other researchers that this is the first known, naturally occurring example of insulin ever occurring in a monomeric form by itself,” Vashisth said.

For their study, Gorai and Vashisth modeled six different analogs of cone snail insulin to show how they would bind with human insulin receptors.

Though cone snail insulin has different properties than the insulin made in the human body, the researchers found that the insulin complexes remained stable, and bound to human insulin receptors even better than the human hormone.

“While more studies are needed, our research shows that despite the shorter peptide sequences, the cone snail venom could be a viable substitute and we are hopeful it will motivate future designs for new fast-acting drug options,” Gorai said in a UNH press release.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says diabetes is the most expensive chronic condition in the nation. Treating diabetes is so expensive that more than a quarter of patients in a 2019 study said they were under-using insulin because of costs.

Mara Hoplamazian reports on climate change, energy, and the environment for NHPR.
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