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Protein Cell. 2010 Jun;1(6):537-51. doi: 10.1007/s13238-010-0069-z.

Insulin: a small protein with a long journey.

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  • 1Department of Biochemistry, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio 44106-4935, USA.


Insulin is a hormone that is essential for regulating energy storage and glucose metabolism in the body. Insulin in liver, muscle, and fat tissues stimulates the cell to take up glucose from blood and store it as glycogen in liver and muscle. Failure of insulin control causes diabetes mellitus (DM). Insulin is the unique medicine to treat some forms of DM. The population of diabetics has dramatically increased over the past two decades, due to high absorption of carbohydrates (or fats and proteins), lack of physical exercise, and development of new diagnostic techniques. At present, the two largest developing countries (India and China) and the largest developed country (United States) represent the top three countries in terms of diabetic population. Insulin is a small protein, but contains almost all structural features typical of proteins: α-helix, β-sheet, β-turn, high order assembly, allosteric T®R-transition, and conformational changes in amyloidal fibrillation. More than ten years' efforts on studying insulin disulfide intermediates by NMR have enabled us to decipher the whole picture of insulin folding coupled to disulfide pairing, especially at the initial stage that forms the nascent peptide. Two structural switches are also known to regulate insulin binding to receptors and progress has been made to identify the residues involved in binding. However, resolving the complex structure of insulin and its receptor remains a challenge in insulin research. Nevertheless, the accumulated knowledge of insulin structure has allowed us to specifically design a new ultra-stable and active single-chain insulin analog (SCI-57), and provides a novel way to design super-stable, fast-acting and cheaper insulin formulations for DM patients. Continuing this long journey of insulin study will benefit basic research in proteins and in pharmaceutical therapy.

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