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Andrew Butler, associate professor in The Scripps Research Institute’s Department of Metabolism and Aging, has received $1 million in funding over the next two years to further research into a novel protein with the potential to improve the understanding and future treatment of diabetes.

The award is notable in that it comes not from the US National Institutes of Health but from Novo Nordisk, an international healthcare company based in Denmark recognized as a world-leader in diabetes treatment. The Novo Nordisk Diabetes Innovation Award Program was launched in 2011 to help scientists substantiate early research efforts that could result in new treatment options for diabetes and obesity.

Butler’s two-year research project, entitled the “Investigation of a Novel Peptide Hormone in Diabetes Treatment,” was selected from more than 80 submitted proposals from US and Canadian research institutions.

The research involves a peptide hormone secreted by the liver called adropin. Animal models have shown that peptide hormones play an important role in regulating glucose levels and fatty acid metabolism and that irregular function of these hormones can have a direct effect on an individual’s risk of developing obesity and/or diabetes.

“We were studying animal models of insulin resistance as precursor to type 2 diabetes, when we came across adropin,” Butler said. “We found it provocative that this particular peptide hormone was distributed in the brain, liver, and pancreas—three tissues that are of great interest to those of us in the diabetes research field.”

Butler noted that adropin seems to play a role in maintaining normal insulin sensitivity—whereby only a relatively small amount of insulin is needed to maintain regular blood glucose levels. In type 2 diabetes, insulin sensitivity is often blunted, which means that the normal amounts of insulin produced by the body are no longer as effective in lowering blood glucose levels.

“What has not been established are the mechanisms and sites of action that effect glucose homeostasis [equilibrium],” he said. “So that’s what we’re going to spend the next two years finding out with the help of this research grant from Novo Nordisk.”

The research will also explore adropin’s potential role as a protein-based therapy for treating type 2 diabetes, a chronic disease that affects over 300 million people worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. “Clearly, there is an urgent need to identify new and more effective drugs for treating diabetes,” Butler said. “Studying how adropin works in this regard could eventually contribute to this effort.”

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