An Achilles' heel in an amyloidogenic protein and its repair: Insulin fibrillation and therapeutic design

Yanwu Yang, Aneta Petkova, Kun Huang, Bin Xu, Qing Xin Hua, I. Ju Ye, Ying Chi Chu, Shi Quan Hu, Nelson B. Phillips, Jonathan Whittaker, Faramarz Ismail-Beigi, Robert B. Mackin, Panayotis G. Katsoyannis, Robert Tycko, Michael A. Weiss

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

43 Scopus citations


Insulin fibrillation provides a model for a broad class of amyloidogenic diseases. Conformational distortion of the native monomer leads to aggregation-coupled misfolding. Whereas β-cells are protected from proteotoxicity by hexamer assembly, fibrillation limits the storage and use of insulin at elevated temperatures. Here, we have investigated conformational distortions of an engineered insulin monomer in relation to the structure of an insulin fibril. Anomalous 13C NMR chemical shifts and rapid 15N-detected 1H-2H amide-proton exchange were observed in one of the three classical α-helices (residues A1-A8) of the hormone, suggesting a conformational equilibrium between locally folded and unfolded A-chain segments. Whereas hexamer assembly resolves these anomalies in accordance with its protective role, solid-state 13C NMR studies suggest that the A-chain segment participates in a fibril-specific β-sheet. Accordingly, we investigated whether helicogenic substitutions in the A1-A8 segment might delay fibrillation. Simultaneous substitution of three β-branched residues (IleA2 → Leu, ValA3 → Leu, and ThrA8 → His) yielded an analog with reduced thermodynamic stability but marked resistance to fibrillation. Whereas amide-proton exchange in the A1-A8 segment remained rapid, 13Cα chemical shifts exhibited a more helical pattern. This analog is essentially without activity, however, as IleA2 and ValA3 define conserved receptor contacts. To obtain active analogs, substitutions were restricted to A8. These analogs exhibit high receptor-binding affinity; representative potency in a rodent model of diabetes mellitus was similar to wild-type insulin. Although 13Cα chemical shifts remain anomalous, significant protection from fibrillation is retained. Together, our studies define an "Achilles' heel" in a globular protein whose repair may enhance the stability of pharmaceutical formulations and broaden their therapeutic deployment in the developing world.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)10806-10821
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Biological Chemistry
Issue number14
StatePublished - Apr 2 2010
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry
  • Molecular Biology
  • Cell Biology


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