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March 12, 2013

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Sino-US finding may recast diabetes care

A SINO-US scientific team has decoded the structure of a protein, which is expected to make big changes in diabetes treatment in coming years by spurring the development of new drugs with fewer side effects.

The current therapy for Type 1 diabetes includes insulin injections, which can have side effects. Research on the protein, which can regulate insulin, is expected to help develop new chemicals used in pills with reduced side effects.

The finding is a first, and sets a record for life science research, especially regarding human-cell signaling and the development of new drugs, experts told the fifth National Forum on New Technologies in Drug Discovery in Shanghai yesterday.

The team, consisting of scientists from the Shanghai Institute of Materia Medica under the Chinese Academy of Sciences and California-based Scripps Research Institute, focused on a large family of protein receptors that pass through cell membranes.

Cell signaling, the communication between human cells, is the key to how the body functions. Signaling begins at the cell surface, while the family of protein receptors, called "G protein coupled receptors" or GPCR, is involved in 80 percent of cell surface activities in the human body. The receptors control functions such as growth, reproduction and nervous and mental activities.

GPCR is the target of 40 percent of modern medicines. The 12 drugs among the 20 top sellers in the world use GPCR as targets and have US$200 billion in annual sales.

Wang Mingwei from the Shanghai institute said the G protein coupled receptors are divided into classes from A to F and only Class A, the simplest one, has been decoded. "The rest of the classes, especially Class B, have been secret. This time we decoded the structure of a receptor in Class B." Wang said the class has hormones for life functions relating to calcium, glucose and energy metabolism.

"It may take three to five years to develop new chemicals for a new diabetes drug using this target," said Raymond Stevens, an American visiting professor at the Shanghai institute and a top scientist at the Scripps institute.

Research on GPCR has been conducted for decades and has been the focus of two Nobel Prizes including last year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry.


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