Biologists at UC San Diego have discovered a chemical that offers a completely new and promising direction for the development of drugs to treat metabolic disorders such as type 2 diabetes — a major public health concern in the United States due to the current obesity epidemic.
Their discovery, detailed in a paper published July 13 in an advance online issue of the journal Science, initially came as a surprise because the chemical they isolated does not directly control glucose production in the liver, but instead affects the activity of a key protein that regulates the internal mechanisms of our daily night and day activities, which scientists call our circadian rhythm or biological clock.
Scientists had long suspected that diabetes and obesity could be linked to problems in the biological clock. Laboratory mice with altered biological clocks, for example, often become obese and develop diabetes. Two years ago, a team headed by Steve Kay, dean of the Division of Biological Sciences at UC San Diego, discovered the first biochemical link between the biological clock and diabetes. It found that a key protein, cryptochrome, that regulates the biological clocks of plants, insects and mammals also regulates glucose production in the liver and that altering the levels of this protein could improve the health of diabetic mice.
Now Kay and his team have discovered a small molecule — one that can be easily developed into a drug — that controls the intricate molecular cogs or timekeeping mechanisms of cryptochrome in such a manner that it can repress the production of glucose by the liver. Like mice and other animals, humans have evolved biochemical mechanisms to keep a steady supply of glucose flowing to the brain at night, when we’re not eating or otherwise active.
“At the end of the night, our hormones signal that we’re in a fasting state,” said Kay. “And during the day, when we’re active, our biological clock shuts down those fasting signals that tell our liver to make more glucose because that’s when we’re eating.”