Affecting over 320 million people worldwide, Type 2 diabetes is a globally-significant condition characterised by high blood glucose levels. Current drugs operate by inhibiting enzymes that break down sugar chains into glucose units, but this can cause unpleasant side-effects, from flatulence to diarrhoea. Searching for a solution led to the discovery of montbretin A (MbA), a compound found in the bulbs, or corms, of the widespread African flowering plant montbretia (pictured). Tests found that MbA blocks another enzyme, known as HPA, to decrease blood glucose without the side-effects. Researchers are now investigating how montbretia plants make MbA, to seek out ways of mass-producing it for the pharmaceutical industry. Recent work identified the enzymes required to produce some intermediate compounds on the pathway towards MbA, including mini-MbA, which also inhibits HPA. Introducing the required genes from montbretia enabled the synthesis of mini-MbA in transformed tobacco plants, a first step towards larger-scale production.
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