Tag Archives: amylin

Could Glucagon Be Just as Important as Insulin in Diabetes?

I couldn't find a pertinent picture

I couldn’t find a pertinent picture

Everybody knows that insulin is the key hormone gone haywire in diabetes, right? Did you know it’s not the only one out of whack? Roger Unger and Alan Cherrington in The Journal of Clinical Investigation point out that another hormone—glucagon—is also very important in regulation of blood sugar in both types of diabetes.

Insulin has a variety of actions the ultimately keep blood sugar levels from rising dangerously high. Glucagon, on the other hand, keeps blood sugar from dropping too low. For instance, when you stop eating food, as in an overnight or longer fast, glucagon stimulates glucose (sugar) production by your liver so you don’t go into a hypoglycemic coma and die. It does the same when you exercise, as your muscles soak up glucose from your blood stream.

Glucagon works so well to raise blood sugar that we inject it into diabetics who are hypoglycemic but comatose or otherwise unable to swallow carbohydrates.

Glucagon also has effects on fatty acid metabolism, ketone production, and liver protein metabolism, but this post is already complicated enough.

So where does glucagon come from? The islets of Langherhans, for one. You already know the healthy pancreas has beta cells that produce insulin. The pancreas has other cells—alpha or α cells—that produce glucagon. Furthermore, the stomach and duodenum (the first part of the small intestine) also have glucagon-producing alpha cells. The insulin and glucagon work together to keep blood sugar in an fairly narrow range. Insulin lowers blood sugar, glucagon raises it. It’s sort of like aiming for a hot bath by running a mix of cold and very hot water.

Update: I just licensed this from Shutterstock.com

Update: I just licensed this from Shutterstock.com

Ungar and Cherrington say that one reason it’s so hard to tightly control blood sugars in type 1 diabetes is because we don’t address the high levels of glucagon. The bath water’s not right because we’re fiddling with just one of the faucets. Maybe we’ll call this the Goldilocks Theory of Diabetes.

When you eat carbohydrates, your blood sugar starts to rise. Beta cells in the healthy pancreas start secreting insulin to keep a lid on the blood sugar rise. This is not the time you want uncontrolled release of glucagon from the alpha cells, which would work to raise blood sugars further. Within the pancreas, beta and alpha cells are in close proximity. Insulin from the beta cells directly affects the nearby alpha cells to suppress glucagon release. This localized hormone effect is referred to as “paracrine guidance” in the quote below, and it takes very little insulin to suppress glucagon.

From the Ungar and Cherrington article:

Here, we review evidence that the insulinocentric view of metabolic homeostasis is incomplete and that glucagon is indeed a key regulator of normal fuel metabolism, albeit under insulin’s paracrine guidance and control. Most importantly, we emphasize that, whenever paracrine control by insulin is lacking, as in T1DM, the resulting unbridled hyperglucagonemia is the proximal cause of the deadly consequences of uncontrolled diabetes and the glycemic volatility of even “well-controlled” patients.

*  *  *

All in all, it would seem that conventional monotherapy with insulin is incomplete because it can provide paracrine suppression of glucagon secretion only by seriously overdosing the extrapancreatic tissues.

So What?

Elucidation of diabetes’ disease mechanisms (pathophysiology) can lead to new drugs or other therapies that improve the lives of diabetics. A potential drug candidate is leptin, known to suppress glucagon hyper secretion in rodents with type 1 diabetes.


Steve Parker, M.D.

PS: Amylin is yet another hormone involved in blood sugar regulation, but I’ll save that for another day. If you can’t wait, read about it here in my review of pramlintide, a drug for type 1 diabetes.


Filed under Causes of Diabetes

Brief Drug Review: Pramlintide

Pramlintide is sold in the U.S. as Symlin.  It’s only used in patients already taking meal-time rapid-acting insulin.  Pramlintide may have a role in treatment of overweight type 2 diabetics inadequately controlled on insulin, or who experience weight gain refractory to diet and exercise.

Remember that drug names vary by country and manufacturer.  This is a brief review; consult your physician or pharmacist for details.

Class:  amylin analogue

How does it work?

Amylin is a hormone stored in pancreas beta cells and is secreted along with insulin.  It affects glucose levels by several mechanisms, including slowed stomach emptying, regulation of glucagon secretion after meals, and by reducing food intake.  Amylin and insulin levels rise and fall together,working jointly to control blood sugar levels.   Amylin is relatively deficient in many cases of type 2 diabetes.

Pramlintide is a chemical similar in structure to amylin, and causes similar effects.  It allows insulin therapy to more easily match the body’s needs in the after-meal period.  It also promotes modest weight loss in obese patients. 

Pramlintide therapy reduces hemoglobin A1c by 0.5 to 1% (absolute decrease, not relative).

We have no data on long-term outcomes with this drug.


Pramlintide is FDA-approved for use in both type 1 diabetes and insulin-requiring type 2 diabetes.  It can be used with metformin and/or sulfonylureas as long as insulin is also part of the regimen.  It’s probably best not to use it with exenatide and other GLP-1-based therapies.


It’s injected subcutaneously just before meals, starting with 60 mcg in type 2 diabetics.  To avoid hypoglycemia at the start of treatment, the pre-meal rapid-acting injected insulin dose is usually reduced by half.  Pramlintide should only be administered before meals that contain at least 30 grams of carbohydrate or 250 calories.  The maximum dose is 120 mcg with each meal. 

Side effects

Nausea is the most common side effect but clears up in a few weeks.  Pramlintide by itself does not cause hypoglycemia, but since it is always used with injectable insulin, hypoglycemia may occur—usually within three hours.

Don’t use if you have . . .

. . . gastroparesis or hypoglycemia unawareness.

Steve Parker, M.D.

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Filed under Drugs for Diabetes

You Know About Insulin. And Now, the REST of the Story . . .

When we digest carbohydrates, blood sugar rises.  If it goes too high it causes problems.  Everybody knows that insulin lowers blood sugar levels, right?  Less well-known is that regulation of blood sugar is the result of complex interactions of multiple hormones, not just insulin.

[As is my habit, I will use “sugar” and “glucose” interchangeably in this post.] 

Allow me to review the main hormones involved in blood glucose regulation:

1. Insulin is made and stored in pancreas beta cells.  As a meal is digested, blood sugar rises; the pancreas releases insulin to bring blood sugar back down by driving it into cells.

2. Amylin is also made and stored in pancreas beta cells and works to reduce blood sugar levels.  Blood levels of amylin rise and fall in concert with insulin levels.  Amylin slows emptying of the stomach, reduces food consumption, and regulates another hormone—glucagon—after meals.

3. Glucagon is from pancreas alpha cells.  It works to raise blood sugar by promoting the liver’s breakdown of glycogen into glucose, and by promoting the liver’s manufacture of new glucose molecules.

4. Glucagon-like peptide -1 (GLP-1) is produced in small intestine cells and it’s main action is to promote insulin secretion by the pancreas beta cells after absorption of food, which lowers blood sugar levels.  GLP-1 (like amylin) also inhibits emptying of the stomach, inhibits glucagon release, and inhibits appetite, all of which would tend to keep a lid on blood sugar levels. 

5. Gastric inhibitory polypeptide (GIP) promotes secretion of insulin following absorption of food.  GIP is also known as glucose-dependent insulinotropic polypeptide.

You can see that some hormonal mechanisms raise glucose levels; others lower glucose levels.  Homeostasis is all about reaching a happy medium between the two, without wild swings one way or the other.  In healthy people, eating food leads to release of gastrointestinal peptides (GLP-1 and GIP), insulin, and amylin.  The interaction among them keeps blood sugar levels in a fairly level low range.  In diabetes, one or more malfunctions in the system leads to abnormally high blood sugars.

The good news is that scientists have used this knowledge to devise new, effective treatments for diabetes.  Examples are GLP-1 analogues and DPP-4 inhibitors.

Steve Parker, M.D.

PS:   In lab animals, GLP-1 stimulates formation of new pancreas beta cells, so it hold promise in halting the progressive beta cell failure characteristic of type 2 diabetes.


Filed under Carbohydrate, Causes of Diabetes