GSBS Dissertations and Theses

Approval Date

May 2008

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation


Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences


Endoplasmic Reticulum; Insulin-Secreting Cells; Pancreas; Signal Transduction; Stress; Diabetes Mellitus; Membrane Glycoproteins; Academic Dissertations


Protein folding in the endoplasmic reticulum (ER) is essential for proper cellular function. However, the sensitive environment in the ER can be perturbed by both pathological processes as well as by physiological processes such as a large biosynthetic load placed on the ER. ER stress is a specific type of intracellular stress caused by the accumulation of immature or abnormal misfolded or unfolded proteins in the ER. Simply defined, ER stress is a disequilibrium between ER load and folding capacity. Cells have an adaptive response that counteracts ER stress called the "Unfolded Protein Response” (UPR). The ability to adapt to physiological levels of ER stress is especially important for maintaining ER homeostasis in secretory cells. This also holds true for pancreatic β-cells, which must fold and process large amounts of the hormone insulin.

Pancreatic β-cells minimize abnormal levels of glycemia through adaptive changes in the production and regulated secretion of insulin. This process is highly sensitive, so that small degrees of hypo- or hyperglycemia result in altered insulin release. The frequent fluctuation of blood glucose levels in humans requires that β-cells control proinsulin folding in the ER with exquisite sensitivity. Any imbalance between the load of insulin translation into the ER and the actual capacity of the ER to properly fold and process the insulin negatively affects the homeostasis of β-cells and causes ER stress.

In this dissertation, we show that Inositol Requiring 1 (IRE1), an ER-resident kinase/endoribonuclease and a central regulator of ER stress signaling, is essential for maintaining ER homeostasis in pancreatic β-cells. Importantly, IRE1 has a crucial function in the body’s normal production of insulin in response to high glucose. Phosphorylation and subsequent activation of IRE1 by transient exposure to high glucose is coupled to insulin biosynthesis, while inactivation of IRE1 by siRNA or inhibition of IRE1 phosphorylation abolishes insulin biosynthesis. IRE1 signaling under these physiological ER stress conditions utilizes a unique subset of downstream components of IRE1 and has a beneficial effect on pancreatic β-cell homeostasis.

In contrast, we show that chronic exposure of β-cells to high glucose causes pathological levels of ER stress and hyperactivation of IRE1, leading to the degradation of insulin mRNA. The term “glucose toxicity” refers to impaired insulin secretion by β-cells in response to chronic stimulation by glucose and is characterized by a sharp decline in insulin gene expression. However, the molecular mechanisms of glucose toxicity are not well understood. We show that hyperactivation of IRE1 caused by chronic high glucose treatment or IRE1 overexpression leads to insulin mRNA degradation in pancreatic β-cells. Inhibition of IRE1 signaling using a dominant negative form of the protein prevents insulin mRNA degradation in β-cells. Additionally, islets from mice heterozygous for IRE1 retain expression of more insulin mRNA after chronic high glucose treatment than do their wild-type littermates.

This work suggests that the rapid degradation of insulin mRNA could provide immediate relief for the ER and free up the translocation machinery. Thus, this mechanism may represent an essential element in the adaptation of β-cells to chronic hyperglycemia. This adaptation is crucial for the maintenance of β-cell homeostasis and may explain in part why the β-cells of diabetic patients with chronic hyperglycemia stop producing insulin without simply undergoing apoptosis. This work implies that prolonged activation of IRE1 signaling is involved in the molecular mechanisms underlying glucose toxicity.

This work therefore reveals two distinct activities elicited by IRE1 in pancreatic β-cells. IRE1 signaling activated by transient exposure to high glucose enhances proinsulin biosynthesis, while chronic exposure of β-cells to high glucose causes hyperactivation of IRE1, leading to the degradation of insulin mRNA. Physiological IRE1 activation by transient high glucose levels in pancreatic β cells has a beneficial effect on insulin biosynthesis. However, pathological IRE1 activation by chronic high glucose or experimental drugs negatively affects insulin gene expression. In the future, a system to induce a physiological level of IRE1 activation, and/or reduce the pathological level of IRE1 activation could be used to enhance insulin biosynthesis and secretion in people with diabetes, and may lead to the development of new and more effective clinical approaches to the treatment of this disorder.

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