Could turning on a gene prevent diabetes?

Type 2 diabetes accounts for 90 % of cases of diabetes around the world, afflicting 2.5 million Canadians and costing over 15 billion dollars a year in Canada. It is a severe health condition which makes body cells incapable of taking up and using sugar. Dr. Alexey Pshezhetsky of the Sainte-Justine University Hospital Research Center, affiliated with the University of Montreal, has discovered that the resistance to insulin seen in type 2 diabetics is caused partly by the lack of a protein that has not previously been associated with diabetes. This breakthrough could potentially help to prevent diabetes.


“We discovered that Neu1, a protein nicknamed after “neuraminidase 1”, turns the absorption of sugar “on” or “off” in body cells, by regulating the amount of sialic acid on the surface of cells”, Dr. Pshezhetsky explains.

“We are now trying to find a way to restore Neu1 levels and function in diabetes. If we can remove sialic acid residues from the cell surface, this will force the insulin receptor do its job of absorbing blood sugar properly. This could give doctors an opportunity to reduce the use of insulin therapy, and might help to reduce the diabetes epidemic, says Dr. Pshezhetsky.

The results of his study done on cells and mice were published this month in the journal Diabetes. Dr Pshezhetsky and his team are now testing their results in diabetic patients.

Although type 2 diabetes is initially treated with diet, exercise and tobacco avoidance, doctors try to restore normal levels of insulin by prescribing it when this fails. The number of cases diagnosed around the world continues to grow incredibly quickly: according to the United States Center Disease Control, cases in that country grew on average by 82% between 1995 and 2010. In Oklahoma, the number increased by 226%. The disease accounts for 90% of diabetes cases around the world, and its prevalence has increased in parallel with the obesity epidemic. Obesity is in fact thought to cause this disease which can in turn lead to heart disease, strokes and even limb amputation due to poor circulation.

About this study:

Dr Alexey Pshezhetsky and his colleagues published “Positive Regulation of Insulin Signaling by Neuraminidase 1” in the July, 2013 edition of Diabetes. The study was partially supported by research grants from Canadian Diabetes Association and the Canadian Institutes for Health Research.


·        Profile of Dr. Alexey Pshezhetsky

·        Centre for Disease Control Statistics

For more information and interviews:

William Raillant-Clark
Media Relations
Université de Montréal
514 343-7593

Mélanie Dallaire
Senior Media Relations Consultant, Sainte-Justine UHC
514 345-7707 / 514 415-5727