Pennington scientists discover faster method to develop diabetes drugs

Pennington scientists discover faster method to develop diabetes drugs

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - More than one out of ten people in Louisiana have type 2 diabetes and about half the state is at risk for developing the disease, according to data from Pennington Biomedical Research Center. With so many people affected by the disease, Pennington researchers are working on a new test that could help speed up the discovery of newer, more effective medication.

Pennington assistant professor Dr. Jason Collier explained developing new medication involves applying test drugs to pancreatic beta cells, which store insulin. Then researchers must measure the amount of insulin the cells do or don't secrete. The process is repeated for each drug. This traditional method can take weeks and costs hundreds of thousands of dollars just to figure out what might work.

However, Collier and others at Pennington believe they have found a shortcut by looking for another important marker. Collier explains that calcium is what signals pancreatic beta cells, the cells that store insulin, to secrete the insulin into the blood when needed.

"When a person drinks a Coke, or eats a donut, or has some kind of food with sugar in it, once it hits the blood, there's a specific cell type that makes and secretes insulin. Glucose triggers that insulin secretion using the metabolic process that's coupled with calcium," said Collier.

If there's no secretion, there's no insulin, and that leads to diabetes.

As Collier was studying this reaction in the pancreatic beta cells, he discovered something he couldn't quite explain, so he enlisted the help of another Pennington scientist, Dr. Richard Rogers, who studies brain function. By using Rogers' equipment, the researchers realized they could target calcium presence in pancreatic cells by using a fluorescent dye in a process they call Cell Glow. Using a specialized microscope equipped with a camera, they can watch the pancreatic beta cells illuminate with calcium as they're exposed to sugar.

If the cells light up, calcium is doing its job and insulin should be released.

"If you see the fireworks, you see the insulin secretion," said Collier. "It's a way to indicate cellular function."

It didn't take them long to realize this technique could be a very effective way to test whether a potential drug could be effective. The Cell Glow technique also allows them to test several drugs at the same time, speeding up testing from weeks to just a few hours.

The scientists are fine tuning their process, but hope to one day offer their Cell Glow test to developers to get more effective drugs on the market faster.

"We would hope this process would speed up drug discovery and that people would be able to say, 'I discovered this new drug-targeted calcium response that promoted insulin secretion and now that drug is being given to either type 1 or type 2 patients,'" said Collier.

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