Unmasked enzyme may lead to new drugs for type II diabetes

Scientists at the Medical Research Council have made a discovery that could pave the way for better treatments of type II diabetes.

The teams at two MRC institutes (the National Institute for Medical Research and the Clinical Sciences Centre) have determined the structure of the enzyme that regulates cellular energy levels.

They hope their work will lead to new drugs for type II diabetes, an illness that affects more than two million people in the UK. It's not known what causes this type of diabetes, but obesity and lack of exercise are contributory factors. Diabetes occurs when the body stops producing or doesn't properly use insulin – which is needed to take glucose from the blood and into cells where it provides energy.

The enzyme the scientists have been studying is called AMPK (AMP-activated protein kinase). It senses the energy level in the cell and then changes the balance of energy-producing or energy-consuming activities appropriately. The scientists used X-ray crystallography to determine a highly detailed image of what the molecule looks like. This approach is often key to the development of new drugs. They believe their discovery will help to create new therapeutics that will decrease the surplus blood glucose that people with type II diabetes are unable to process.

Dr Steve Gamblin from the MRC National Institute for Medical Research in London explained that the team's findings should help develop better treatments:

“Diabetes is a growing problem throughout the developed and developing world as people become more sedentary. Targeting this enzyme is a good way to help people with type II diabetes to regulate their blood sugar levels and avoid the horrible consequences of this illness. By unravelling its structure we hope new drugs can be created to effectively tackle diabetes with fewer side effects.”

MRC Technology, the technology commercialisation arm of the MRC, is developing a patent portfolio around AMPK, based on the expertise of its scientists in this field. The hope is to support the development of new therapeutics, that target this enzyme, for the treatment of diabetes and several other diseases.

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