Department of Chemistry

School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics

UT Dallas Professor Works on a New Treatment for Diabetes

UT Dallas Assistant Professor Jung-Mo Ahn has friends with diabetes and their stories of the lengths they have gone through to keep their blood sugar level inspired him to seek alternative treatments for diabetes, especially type 2 diabetes.  But while his friends may serve as his inspiration, there are literally millions of people who would benefit from his work – 7 percent of Americans have diabetes and complications from metabolic illness is the third leading cause of death in the United States.  Despite the number of people impacted by diabetes and the research done to fight it, there is a limited number of medications available because, as Ahn says “insulin has been a miracle drug.”

“Insulin works,” Ahn said.  “But insulin does only so much.  There is a state where it does nothing and the doctor cannot prescribe any more insulin because it is fatal in high doses.”

The underlying problem is dying beta-cells in the pancreas.  Beta-cells are the cells in the body responsible for the production of insulin and are critical to the delivery of energy throughout the body. Healthy beta cells deliver insulin directly into the blood stream.  Beta cells are designed to deliver insulin in the right amount at the right time to keep blood sugars normal.  In Type 1 diabetes, beta cells eventually produce no insulin at all. In Type 2 diabetes, the beta cell is working overtime, stressed because of insulin resistance in surrounding muscle and fat cells.

Ahn has received a three-year, $411,300 junior faculty award from the American Diabetes Association to work on a way of keeping beta-cells healthy using the peptide hormone called glucagon-liked peptide-1 (GLP-1).  GLP-1 is a naturally occurring hormone that stimulates insulin and regulates beta-cell growth.  However, because it is a hormone, it isn’t designed to last long in the body.  The FDA has recently approved its analogue for diabetes treatment but it requires two injections a day and it is not a replacement for insulin.  Ahn is hopeful that he can make a compound that can do the same thing as the GLP-1 hormone but in an oral form.

“Patents prefer a pill since they have to take it over their lifetime,” Ahn explained.  “However, a compound has to survive through the stomach, intestines and liver before it can do anything.  Many compounds like hormones just won’t survive the trip, which is why diabetics can’t drink insulin. 

To develop such medications, Ahn uses a “rational design approach” to his work, quite a different approach compared to those used by pharmaceutical companies. Many pharmaceutical and biotech companies prefer to test compounds in their inventories to attempt to find something that works.  In contrast, Ahn starts from naturally occurring hormones found in our body and then augments them as needed.  It appears as a rather challenging project; however, the successes will produce a strong impact on developing potent therapeutics for many diseases including diabetes.

The compound Ahn has developed also can be used to treat obesity, which often accompanies diabetes because it serves as an appetite suppressant and slows down the stomach’s indigestion.  Therefore, a successful compound could not only help treat the disease but will make an impact on prevention because restoring beta-cell functions and growth will stop the progression of diabetes and even return the patent to a normal state. 

Ahn did his Ph.D. work at The University of Arizona before joining the Scripps Research Institute for his post-graduate work.  He joined the UT Dallas Department of Chemistry in 2004.

  • Updated: July 31, 2007