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Scientists create insulin for diabetics that mimics the venom of a poisonous deep-sea snail

Alanah Frost, May 27, 2020 6:45PM Herald Sun

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Justin and dad Michael both have diabetes. The new type of insulin could be life changing because it would act much faster than insulin diabetics currently use. Picture: Jason Edwards media_cameraJustin and dad Michael both have diabetes. The new type of insulin could be life changing because it would act much faster than insulin diabetics currently use. Picture: Jason Edwards

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Human insulin* modified to mimic the venom of a deep sea snail could help speed up and improve diabetes treatments.

Scientists from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Victoria have developed a new form of human insulin, called “mini-ins” which successfully mimics the quick-acting properties of cone snail venom insulin. The discovery means insulin would work almost instantly after injection, rapidly lowering blood sugar levels.

Professor Mike Lawrence said the findings could be “life-changing” for diabetes sufferers.

“Even at this early stage of development, mini-ins was able to lower blood sugar levels as fast as the current best treatments that are in use,” Prof Lawrence said.

“This tells us that with further development the response time could be made even shorter. For diabetes patients this could be life-changing.”

Diabetes is a serious illness in which the body is not able to make enough insulin or use insulin effectively. Insulin is the hormone* that regulates how much glucose, a form of sugar, is in our blood. About 1.7 million Australians have diabetes.

media_cameraA child checking their blood sugar level. Being a diabetic means constant checking and correcting of the body’s insulin level. Picture: Marian Faa

Researchers have previously found cone snail venom can avoid the structural problems the make-up of human insulins have.

This led Prof Lawrence, his team and scientists at the University of Utah, US, to redesign human insulin molecules* to copy a similar structural make-up of the snail insulin molecules and improve its response time.

“There’s a piece in human insulin that makes the insulin stick to itself and that’s one of the problems — when you inject insulin into the patient it doesn’t come apart quickly enough,” Prof Lawrence said.

“But when we saw the cone snail insulins, we found that they were lacking this piece to begin with.

“We’ve never been able to remove that piece before (in humans), because if you chop it off, it doesn’t work.

“So now we’ve taken insulin and chopped off the piece, and then we’ve looked at the cone snail and looked at its other features to bring the human insulin back to life.”

Sensational sea creatures sticker book 'LOOK BUT DON'T TOUCH' ex/Michael/Wilhelmsen /Qld/Museum geography cone snail (Conus Geographus) venomous can cause death. marine life underwater media_cameraCone snails are venomous and very dangerous (so don’t touch one if you see one at the beach), but scientists have copied the insulin in the venom of a cone snail to make human insulin work much more quickly. Picture: Michael Wilhelmsen

Mum Jade Erickson said being able to help son Justin, 11, and husband Michael, 45, almost immediately would boost their overall health outcomes.

The father and son both suffer from Type 1 diabetes, which Justin manages with an automatic insulin pump.

But Ms Erickson said things could still go wrong and fast-acting insulin was needed.

“Diabetes is so unpredictable and he (Justin) does have high levels for unknown reasons,” she said.

“It would be fantastic to bring that down quickly. The quicker we can get his sugar levels down, the better.

“It would not take away any of the burden*, but it might take away some of the worry.”

Prof Lawrence said the new-look insulin would make the lives of diabetic patients — who usually need about 10-20 minutes between injecting insulin and eating food — much easier.

“The easier it is for the patient (the better),” Prof Lawrence said.

Understanding diabetes

GLOSSARY

  • insulin: hormone made by the pancreas that helps control how much glucose is in the blood
  • hormone: type ofchemical messenger made by the body
  • molecules: smallest pieces of a substance, seen under a microscope
  • burden: heavy load

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QUICK QUIZ

  1. What venomous animal have the scientists been studying?
  2. What does insulin do?
  3. What is the type of sugar you have problems with if you have diabetes?
  4. How does Justin manage his diabetes?
  5. What does Justin’s mum say would be better to get down quickly?

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CLASSROOM ACTIVITIES
1. What’s Important?
List the five most important facts or pieces of information in this story in order from Number One being the most important to Number Five. Next to each fact, write sentences explaining why you chose that fact or piece of information in that order.

Time: allow 25 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Science, Health and Physical Education

2. Extension
Create a diagram that will help other kids understand how and why the researchers have changed human insulin molecules to make “mini-ins” work faster than normal insulin.

Time: allow at least 25 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Science, Visual Communication Design

VCOP ACTIVITY
Aside from this, there is also this!
Brackets are a great literacy tool for adding aside comments, or comments that could be covered over and the sentence still makes sense. What’s inside the brackets is extra information.

They can be used for a variety of effects: to add more detail, to add humour, to connect with the reader etc.

My little brother, (the funniest kid I know) got himself into big trouble today.

Select 3 sentences from the article to add an aside comment to using brackets. Think about not only what you want to add to the sentence, but also what effect you are trying to create.

HAVE YOUR SAY: If you were a scientist, what problem would you like to solve or what disease would you like to cure?
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