A NEW drug could be created to stop patients developing diabetes, research suggests.
Scientists looking at links between obesity and Type 2 diabetes said they had found a target for new treatments which could stop the condition taking hold.
They described the findings as “exciting”, with plans to move on to try to develop the drugs for use in patients at risk of diabetes.
The new research, published in the journal Cell Metabolism, found that a single, overactive enzyme in the body worsened two of the main defects in patients with diabetes – impaired insulin sensitivity, where the body’s cells do not respond properly to the hormone, and overproduction of glucose in the body.
The researchers, from Columbia University medical centre in New York, said by targeting this enzyme, called MK2, it might be possible to correct these defects.
A drug to inhibit MK2 could be added to the current treatment for Type 2 diabetes – called metformin – to allow patients to have better control over their insulin and glucose levels compared to giving each drug in isolation.
Researcher Ira Tabas said: “MK2’s compatibility with metformin makes it a very exciting potential drug target,
“The one clear leader among drugs currently available for Type 2 diabetes is metformin, which does a pretty good job of attacking both problems.
“But because metformin is often not enough, we need drugs that can be added to metformin – or used in patients who cannot tolerate metformin.” Dr Tabas said in their research using mice, those that were obese and diabetic and given metformin saw some improvement, as did those given a drug to inhibit the MK2 enzyme.
“However, if you give both, the benefit is additive, which is consistent with our data that metformin and MK2 work through different biochemical pathways,” the researcher said.
While the research has so far focused on how MK2 works in mice, other work yet to be published by the scientists suggests that the enzyme is also overactive in obese humans, including those with the earliest signs of diabetes – known as pre-diabetes. But it was not found in lean people.
Unless lifestyle changes are made – such as losing weight – around 15 to 30 per cent of people with pre-diabetes will develop full diabetes within five years.
Dr Tabas added: “In addition to improving insulin sensitivity and glucose levels, our data suggest to us that a drug that inhibits MK2 could prevent the progression of pre-diabetes to full diabetes.”
This kind of drug could protect the cells that produce insulin, the researchers believe.
“As the disease progresses, the insulin-producing cells have to put out more and more insulin to deal with the ever-increasing amounts of glucose in the bloodstream. Eventually, they burn out and the patient must use insulin,” Dr Tabas said.
“If we can protect the pancreas’s beta cells [the cells that produce insulin] from the stress of dealing with high glucose, we may be able to prevent or delay progression to full diabetes.”
Around 220,000 people in Scotland are thought to have Type 2 diabetes, which is linked to poor lifestyle and overweight.