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One key, many locks – understanding why insulin doesn’t always bring down blood sugar

Project summary

Sometimes insulin can cause cells to multiply rather than bringing down blood sugar levels. This can increase the risk of some cancers in people with diabetes. Prof Nia Bryant wants to better understand how and why insulin can have this effect. With her PhD student, she will pinpoint the specific areas on cells that causes insulin to lower blood sugars and not to tell cells to multiply. In the future, this could help scientists develop new treatments for people with diabetes that aren’t linked with an increased risk of cancer.

Background to research

People with diabetes can have a higher risk of developing some types of cancers. Cancers develops when cells in the body start to multiply out of control. Sometimes insulin can cause this, for example when people with type 1 diabetes have used insulin for many years. It can also happen when too much insulin builds up in the blood of people with type 2 diabetes, because their bodies find it difficult to use insulin properly.

Insulin works by attaching to areas on the surface of cells called receptors, like a key going into a lock. There are three main types of receptors, or locks, which are found on all cells. When insulin attaches to the receptors, the cell reacts either by bringing blood sugar levels down, or by starting to multiply.  But we don’t know which type of receptor lowers blood sugars and which one tells the cell to multiply.

Research aims

Prof Bryant wants to understand the role of each type of receptor. Her team has several different types of man-made molecules that act like insulin, and each has been designed to attach to a specific type of receptor only. They want to measure the response of each type of receptor to each molecule. This will help them to find out which receptor brings blood sugar levels down, and which one makes the cell multiply.

To check if they are right, they’ll then grow special cells with only one type of receptor and see how they react when insulin attaches to them.

Potential benefit to people with diabetes

Knowing the right ‘lock and key’ combination that causes insulin to bring blood sugar down will help researchers to develop new treatments that do the same job as insulin without causing cells to multiply. This could help to lower people with diabetes’ risk of developing cancer.


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