U of U researchers discover venomous snail produces insulin and could help diabetics

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SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (ABC4 News) – There is fascinating research being done right now on snails on the campus of the University of Utah. 

Did you know there are thousands of snails that use poison to capture its prey? That venom includes insulin. Researchers believe the discovery could help people with diabetes.  

It’s feeding time.

“I didn’t feed them last week,” said Sean Christiansen, lab specialist. 

And these marine cone snails are hungry.

The snail “savagely” hunts and harpoons the fish.

“Or taser or tethering because you’re experiencing an electric shock phenomenon,” said Dr. Helena Safavi. 

The cone snail injects dozens of compounds to poison and paralyze its prey and then swallows it whole.

In another kill, a different cone snail releases venom in the water to sedate the fish.

It is in this snail, Dr. Helena Safavi at University of Utah Health and her team discovered insulin was part of that lethal cocktail.

“We had never seen insulin in animal venom ever. It never had been described and we are extremely surprised to see insulin in these snails,” said Safavi.

Just like in humans, the hormone insulin regulates blood sugar levels, but for these predators, it reduces insulin in their prey almost instantly.

“If the fish does not have enough sugar there’s not enough sugar and blood in the brain the fish can’t swim away,” said Safavi. 

Safavi believes this brings them closer to developing faster acting insulin to treat diabetes in humans. 
 
“Now we started to use insulin to see if we can make better drugs for people who suffer diabetes.”

Dr. Safavi, assistant professor of biochemistry at U of U Health, is also the senior author of this latest study.

When tested in zebrafish and mice induced with type 1 diabetes, in each case, it lowered blood sugar.

Dr. Safavi has been researching cone snails for a decade and says they’re discovering new things about these cone snails every week. Some of the compounds are already being used in non-opioid pain relief medication. Researchers know there’s much more potential to uncover.

“An amazing creature. The fact that we can explore it to improve human health makes us feel very fortunate in the work we do.”

If you’re worried about over-harvesting or collecting insulin from these snails, Dr. Safavi says they only need one. They now know the compound and can replicate it in a synthetic form to make a drug so as not to exploit the natural resource.

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