Landmark discovery about how insulin docks on cells could lead to improved drugs for diabetes.

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Associate Professor Mike Lawrence leads an international team that for the first time reveals a 3D view of insulin bound to its receptor, using the Australian Synchrotron in Melbourne. The research is published in the journal Nature.

The team captures the intricate ‘molecular handshake’ that insulin uses to engage its cellular receptor. Insulin is the hormone that the body uses to help cells take up sugar from the diet for energy.

Lawrence says the discovery is the culmination of a 20-year search to solve the mystery of how insulin binds to its receptor on human cells. They find insulin and its receptor both remarkably ‘change’ as they interact – a piece of insulin folds out and key pieces within the receptor move to engage the incoming insulin hormone.

“You might call it a 'molecular handshake',” Lawrence says.

The discovery is fundamental for developing better types of insulin for treating diabetes.

“This discovery could conceivably lead to new types of insulin that could be given in ways other than injection, or an insulin that has improved properties or longer activity so that it doesn't need to be taken as often.

“It may also have ramifications for diabetes treatment in developing nations, by creating insulin that is more stable and less likely to degrade when not kept cold, an angle being pursued by our collaborators. Our findings are a new platform for developing these kinds of medications.”