Academics, News

BC Biologist Awarded $2.5 Million Grant to Further Study of Viral Insulins

Assistant Professor of Biology Emrah Altindis felt incredibly grateful for the members of his lab when he found out he had been awarded a $2.5 million grant from the National Institute of Health (NIH) to study viral insulins and their cancer implications.

“I was thrilled because it was also a relief,” Altindis said. “I’m also grateful to the people in my lab and all the collaborators because all these science projects are teamwork, and it couldn’t happen without our collaborators.” 

In 2014, Altindis discovered viral insulins as a postdoctoral fellow at the Joslin Diabetes Center. There, he realized that viruses mimicked hormones, including insulin and IGF-1, both of which impact diseases like diabetes, metabolic diseases, and cancer, he said.

“I learned about the central role of insulin in type 1 diabetes, and I thought that there might be some microbes within insulin,” Altindis said. “So based on this, I made some bioinformatics searches, and we were so surprised to discover three viruses that time—and six now—and viral insulins.”

Viral insulins bind to both of the receptors and stimulate signal pathways, which activate various responses in the body, Altindis said. His research, however, found two of the viruses can inhibit the IGF-1 receptor. 

“We also realized that two of the six viral insulins, they bind to the IGF-1 receptor,” Altindis said. “However, instead of activating it, they inhibit the IGF-1 receptor. So researchers have been trying to find a specific inhibitor for this receptor for the last three or four decades, and whatever they identified as an inhibitor for IGF-1 receptor also inhibited insulin receptors. And because of this cross-reaction, hundreds of clinical trials failed.”

Welkin Johnson, chair of the Boston College biology department, said Altindis’s NIH grant reflects the quality of his research.

“If a grant is scored well and gets awarded, it means that our colleagues and peers across the country have independently deemed the work that Dr. Altindis is doing as being in the top echelon,” Johnson said. “It’s an outside judgment that this work is really important and should be funded.” 

Altindis said that he hopes to use the grant to research why viral insulins inhibit the IGF-1 receptor without causing insulin inhibition.

“With this grant, our goal is to understand the mechanism of this inhibition and to apply whatever we identify here to cancer research to determine if we can inhibit the IGF-1 receptor in breast cancer and stop this migration, invasion, and proliferation,” Altindis said.

The second part of Altindis’ research is applying the inhibition mechanism to human diseases and their treatments, he said.

“Goal two is to apply this [knowledge] to IGF-1 receptor-related human diseases, and the first one that comes to my mind is cancer,” Altindis said.

But the discovery of an inhibitor wouldn’t just have implications for the treatment of cancer—it could be game-changing for several different diseases as well, Altindis said. Graves’ disease, for example, currently only has one approved treatment, which costs around $400,000.

“The people with Graves’ disease have one FDA approved drug now,” Altindis said. “If we can develop a peptide-based inhibitor, it will be much more accessible.” 

One challenge Altindis said he faces is resistance from the scientific community. 

“When you come to a field with a new discovery, you see some resistance from the people understanding the new concept and accepting them,” Altindis said.

According to Altindis, as drugs become more exclusive and expensive, the scientific community should also be having more conversations about health equity.

“When we talk about new discoveries or potential implications in science, we always need to think about health equity,” Altindis said. 

Altindis also stressed the growing need for medical aid and insulin for patients with type-1 and type-2 diabetes currently in Gaza. 

I believe that, as a scientist working on diabetes and insulin, it is my responsibility to talk about this and to emphasize that we need a ceasefire,” Altindis said. 

By using viruses and viral insulins as guides, Altindis said he believes his research could help change the lives of patients and the basic understanding of hormone receptor signaling. 

“I believe this might have an impact in the lives of the patients, but also in our very basic understanding of IGF-1 receptor and insulin receptor signaling,” Altindis said. 

Johnson said Altindis’ work reflects the standard of scientific research at BC. 

“I think what it’s doing is saying that here at Boston College, we are doing science at that level, that people from other institutions recognize what’s being done here is important,” Johnson said. 

Correction (Mar. 19, 7:00 p.m.): This article was corrected from a previous version to clarify the meaning of IGF-1 receptors and updated to include more context to Altindis’ research.

March 17, 2024