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Salk researchers announce diabetes breakthrough

Researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies announced Thursday they’ve made a discovery that could lead to new treatments for diabetes.

The scientists have found evidence that a group of enzymes, or proteins, currently under investigation for the treatment of cancer could potentially also work as a treatment for type 2 diabetes. This is significant because it not only portends a new treatment for diabetes, but it also could mean that a new treatment has already gotten through the costly and lengthy early stages of drug development.

"Our results predict then that some of those drugs, probably not the same ones that work on cancer but some of the ones that are sitting on the shelf that maybe weren’t effective for cancer but in fact hit these enzymes, that they could be potential therapeutics for diabetes," said Dr. Reuben Shaw, an assistant professor in Salk’s Molecular and Cell Biology Laboratory. "That means that the time from this initial discovery until the time that this can be tested in the clinic is much shorter."

The Salk discovery revolves around enzymes called histone deacetylases, or HDACs, which help the liver produce sugars when blood glucose runs low after prolonged periods of fasting, particularly at night. After a meal, insulin instructs muscle cells to store this glucose and turns off sugar production in the liver. In patients with type 2 diabetes, however, the body effectively doesn’t listen to insulin, and the liver keeps producing sugar.

The Salk researchers found that by suppressing HDACs in mice with different diabetes models, the sugar levels went back to normal.

Suppressing HDACs has already been found to inhibit tumor growth, so a number of pharmaceutical companies, including Merck (NYSE: MRK), have worked or are working on cancer drugs that suppress HDACs.

Dr. Ronald Evans, a professor in Salk’s Gene Expression Laboratory, said that while this discovery is novel, scientists have long noticed a link between cancer and diabetes, particularly because the risks of both diseases are increased in obese patients. This discovery -- that suppressing HDACs can treat diabetes as well as cancer -- is a way of turning this theory into a potential treatment.

"We know that along with increased weight and obesity there is an increased risk of cancer. We also know that cancer cells undergo a profound metabolic change and so the cancer metabolism has become a very big area (of study)," Evans said.

"So for those of us who study metabolism and study cancer, the link between these two seemingly separate areas, actually at the level of the genome, happen to work with several common pathways," he continued, "because they’re both dealing with either consuming energy, which is what happens with cancer, or storing energy, which is what happens with obesity."

Dr. William Brody, president of the Salk Institute said this kind of collaboration is a unique feature at the Institute, which is designed to foster discussion between its scientists. The Institute is relatively small, with about 50 scientists, making it easier for colleagues to get to know one another and discuss their work.

"At the Salk, we have no departments, we have no structure," Brody said. "We don’t require (researchers) to teach Neuroscience 101 or Metabolism 102 or whatever. It’s very unique; it’s what I call organized chaos. Because that’s what science is all about, it’s a lot of focus on a problem but then opening up your eyes to see what’s around you."

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Salk Institute for Biological Studies

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