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University of Utah researchers develop fast-acting insulin based on sea snail venom

Discovery could help improve treatment of those with Type 1 diabetes, researchers say

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Helena Safavi, left, helps her colleague, José Rosado from Maputo, Mozambique, sort cone snails collected by scuba divers near the Solomon Islands in the south Pacific. The scientists set up a mobile lab on the diving ship to dissect and preserve the biological samples.

Adam Blundell

SALT LAKE CITY — University of Utah researchers say they have developed a fast-acting insulin based on sea snail venom that could improve the lives of those with Type 1 diabetes.

For about the past five years as part of an international team, researchers worked to discover how the venom of predatory cone snails quickly paralyzes their deep-sea victims by causing their blood glucose levels to drop rapidly.

The venom the snails release is a form of insulin that, in earlier research by the same team, was discovered to have many of the same traits as human insulin.


A scuba diver holds a live specimen of Conus geographus collected during a night dive. Scientists used insulin extracted from this snail’s venom to produce a hybrid form of fast-acting insulin that could work in humans.

Adam Blundell

In the current project, the U. researchers found a large difference between cone snail venom and human insulin — because cone snail venom isn’t processed the same way as human insulin for storage in the pancreas, it is immediately ready to work to lower blood sugar levels. But the snail venom is far less potent than human insulin.

Researchers combined properties of the snail insulin with human insulin to create a synthetic version, said Helena Safavi, study co-author and an assistant professor of biomedical sciences at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark and Utah adjunct professor.

When tested on rats and mice, the hybrid insulin had the same potency as human insulin but acted a lot faster to lower blood sugar levels.

“The discovery that one could indeed create a compound that was as fast as the snail insulins and as potent as human insulin was really a big and surprising achievement because despite decades of insulin research, no one had designed such a compound,” Safavi said.

Now, many with Type 1 diabetes need to inject their insulin at least 23 minute before a meal, but the hybrid insulin can do its job in as quickly as five minutes, said Danny Hung-Chieh Chou, University of Utah Health assistant professor of biochemistry and one of the study’s corresponding authors.

“This is a very special insulin in the way that it still looks like human insulin, so basically still preserves lots of features that people with diabetes currently are using,” Chou said.

Scientists call it “mini insulin.” The university has a patent on the research, and a biotech company is currently working on it, Chou said. Research is now underway on the drug in pigs.

Safavi said that while the mini-insulin was expensive to create in a research lab, “for use as a therapeutic in humans, one would make this compound in bacteria or yeast using a process called recombinant expression. This is every cheap and used by all pharmaceutical companies that make insulin drugs.”

Chou, who has been an insulin scientist for more than a decade, called the mini-insulin’s creation “a pretty important milestone for us to demonstrate that there are lots of promises from venom insulin.”

“That’s an important step forward in our quest to make diabetes treatment safer and more effective,” Chou said in a statement.

Safavi cautioned, however, that if it becomes available as a therapeutic for those with diabetes, the min-insulin likely wouldn’t replace slow-acting insulin.      

“One would still want to have a slow-acting depot insulin that is slowly released into the body over the course of a day. The one we designed acts rapidly and these are typically used in combination with slow-acting insulin analogs that are injected in the morning,” she said.