Marth and his colleagues began their studies hoping to learn more about the function of protein glycosylation in the pancreas. They focused on the function of GnT-4a, in part, because it is highly expressed in the pancreas. GnT-4a is a type of enzyme known as a glycosyltransferase that attaches sugar-like molecules called glycans to proteins in a process called glycosylation. Glycans are essential for the proper function of many proteins.
GnT-4a was known to maintain glucose transporters on the surface of beta cells in the pancreas. Those transporters, such as Glut-2, play a crucial role in allowing the beta cell to sense how much glucose is in the blood. Transport of glucose across the cell membrane into pancreatic beta cells triggers insulin secretion.
The new studies showed that in the absence of sufficient GnT-4a enzyme, Glut-2 lacks an attached glycan that is required for it to be expressed at the cell membrane. Without that glycan, Glut-2 leaves the cell surface and becomes internalized, where it can no longer transport glucose into the cell. In turn, this failure impairs insulin secretion, causing type 2 diabetes in the mice.
"What was really astounding to us, however, was that when we fed normal mice a high-fat diet, we saw this same mechanism of pathogenesis with attenuation of GnT-4a enzyme levels, reduced Glut-2 glycosylation, and loss of cell surface Glut-2 expression," said Marth. "This finding may explain the loss of Glut-2 commonly observed in type 2 diabetes. For example, transcriptional control of GnT-4a expression may underlie the pathogenesis of type 2 diabetes in human mature onset diabetes of the young (MODY), and perhaps in response to leptin signaling deficiency in db mice."
In addition, variations in susceptibility to type 2 diabetes may result from inherited differences in the gene for GnT-4a that may ultimately affect its level or activity. These findings could have important clinical i
Contact: Jim Keeley
Howard Hughes Medical Institute