Melbourne researchers improve diabetes treatment with snails

The secret to better diabetes treatment may have been found in the most unlikely of places –– snail venom.

According to scientists, the venom of the marine cone snail contains a specific form of insulin which is known to work exceptionally faster than human insulins.

Associate Professor Mike Lawrence from Melbourne’s Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research believes this discovery could help develop more efficient therapies for diabetes patients.

Together with the University of Utah, the Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical SciencesLa Trobe University and Flinders University, Associate Professor Lawrence has set out to investigate how the snails “ultra-fast-acting” insulin could be used to improve diabetes medicine.

The “light bulb moment”

The realisation that a marine cone snail’s venom contained insulin “was totally out of the blue,” says Associate Professor Lawrence, explaining insulin had never been found in an organism’s venom before.

In the marine cone snail, insulin is used to immobilise fish and capture them.

“What that told us is that nature, somehow through the cone snail, had managed to work out how to make a fast-acting insulin,” says Lawrence.

Notably, Lawrence also defines the cone snail as “a slow-moving thing”, whereas fish move at much quicker speeds. If the snail is hoping to slow a fish down by squirting insulin into the water, that insulin is going to have to work pretty quickly.

For Lawrence, recognising this was a “light bulb moment”.

Working at the Australian Synchrotron, the Melbourne-based team was able to identify the properties that made the insulin such a speedy solution.

“That tells us how to engineer a human insulin that has the same principles and design features in it that the cone snail venom has,” says Lawrence.

Benefit for diabetes patients

Around 1.7 million Australians have diabetes and many struggle to control the disease.

“Diabetics are totally dependent on insulin to manage their disease,” says Lawrence. “That’s obviously quite onerous. One of the problems is that diabetics have to inject themselves 20 or so minutes before, to ensure there is insulin in their system to cope with the surge in blood sugar that occurs when they have a meal.”

By mimicking the properties of such an insulin, the researchers believe they can also develop “a fast-acting insulin that can be administered much more closely to meal times”.

This would improve patient compliance and reduce associated health risks.

Collaborations key to innovative breakthroughs

Lawrence attributes the success of the Melbourne-led research to collaboration and an efficient, aggressive approach.

“We had collaborators who could synthesise it [the insulin], we had the Australian Synchrotron in Victoria, we had resources to work with, we had experience. So we were actually able to work quite quickly to get to the point where we could answer the problem.”

The team swiftly applied for a provisional patent and published an article in the highly regarded journal, Nature Structural & Molecular Biology.

As a result of this paper, their findings received widespread coverage—features appeared in ForbesThe Sydney Morning Herald and Nature, amongst others.

Lawrence is optimistic the good press and growing demand for improved diabetes treatment will push the research forward, potentially leading to new forms of diabetic-focused medicine.

“There’s a tremendous buzz. We’ve gone through intellectual property protection and we’re trying to get extra funds to boost the research. We’re fairly hopeful,” he says. “We know all of the major pharmaceutical companies are trying to do exactly the same thing.”