“Molecular Handshake” Key to Insulin’s Interaction With Cells

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Scientists have known for almost 100 years that insulin is the key to achieving both the control of blood sugar and its metabolization by the body. But what they have not figured out is exactly how insulin interacts with the body’s cells.

Now a team of researchers from Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Ohio, using highly sophisticated 3-D research tools, think they now know the answer to that question: As insulin circulates through the bloodstream, a section of it folds out to engage receptors in the body’s cells that are sensitive to its presence. The researchers call the actions “a molecular handshake” as both insulin and body cells recognize one another, allowing insulin to then help glucose penetrate cell membranes.

The team believes that its insight into insulin-body cell bonding may provide ways to decrease the number of daily insulin injections that everybody with type 1 diabetes and many people with type 2 diabetes must take. For example, in place of injections oral drugs might be developed to deliver small molecules to body cell receptors, coaxing them to allow glucose to enter.

Researchers created highly detailed, three-dimensional images that allowed them to observe and understand the interaction between insulin and cells. Their far-flung team included scientists from Case Western and the University of Chicago in the United States, the University of York in the United Kingdom, the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry in the Czech Republic, and the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, Australia.

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