5 February 2014

Sugar chemistry to prolong effects of diabetes medication


Avoiding diabetes at all costs is always a good idea, and more so if one is petrified by needles. The daily injection remains the only treatment for the disease. Luckily, injections are painless. But University of Copenhagen chemistry student Mads Østergaard sees an opportunity, and has set his sights on developing insulin with properties that prolong its effectiveness. To help him in this pursuit, he has wrangled a DKK 49,000 Novo Nordisk/Novozymes Scholarship.

Changes in chemical structure forces insulin to release slowly

Insulin plays a crucial role in the transport of sugar from food into human cells. Because diabetics lack insulin, they must inject it regularly in order for the body to get sugar to where it is needed.

Østergaard wants to manipulate insulin and make it last longer by exploiting natural aspects of the substance’s molecular properties. Though insulin tends to assemble itself into groupings of six molecules known as hexamers, it is only effective when standing alone – as monomers.

Plantesukker til at lime molekyle sammen

Using a unique sugar substance, a complex carbohydrate derived from plants, Østergaard hopes to coax insulin hexamers to join into larger structures. If the sugars can be successfully bonded with insulin, it may be possible to control the rate at which the hexamers are then released. In other words, the rate at which these bonds between insulin molecules dissolve. This could be used in a long acting insulin that requires fewer and less frequent injections. While it sounds simple, the challenge is undoubtedly immense.

"The larger the molecule, the tougher the chemistry. My sugar molecules are pretty big

Mads Østergaard

Master student

Dept. of Chemistry

Chemical Biology and Bionanoscience

”It’s said that the larger the molecule, the tougher the chemistry. My sugar molecules are pretty big, so I’ve already banged my head up against the wall a few times,” the grad student says with a wry smile. “On the other hand, it would be a huge advantage to use this complex carbohydrate in a drug. This sugar comes from the peels of fruit such as apples and oranges. This is stuff we eat, and therefore harmless to our bodies”.

One of the largest Danish Scholarships for Grad students

Novo Nordisk/Novozymes awards 39 scholarships to natural sciences and biotechnology graduate students enrolled in Danish universities or at the Lund University in Sweden. With up to 84,000 Danish kroner available per year, the scholarship is one of the most generous grants available for students. Østergaard is not just proud of the honour and happy about the prize. He is also relieved by the freedom that this large chunk of money provides him while working on his master’s thesis.

"Now I have the funds to quit my student job. This flexibility is so incredibly meaningful in relation to the experiments that I’ll be able to carry out!

Mads Østergaard


Kemisk Institut

Københavns Universitet

”There have been numerous times when I have had to put off lab experiments because I had to leave and work my student job shifts. Now I have the funds to quit my student job. This flexibility is so incredibly meaningful in relation to the experiments that I’ll be able to carry out,” says Østergaard..

Even though the ultimate goal is to show that sugars can be used to both retain and release the vital insulin molecules, Østergaard points out that he would also be satisfied with less.

“I also learn from what goes wrong in the laboratory. In any case, I have learned that one can hope for a particular outcome from an experiment, but that the most important skill in a laboratory is to be able to negotiate adversity. Because, molecules don’t always behave as predicted,” concludes Mads Østergaard. He expects to hand in his thesis in August 2014. The project combines chemical synthesis and nanoscience. Østergaard is working together with the Department of Chemistry’s Professor Knud J. Jensen.

Ambassador as well as researcher

Novo Scholarship programme recipients also have the opportunity to communicate their interest in the natural sciences as a Novo Science Ambassador. Novo Science Ambassadors are encouraged to share the excitement of their particular field. Ambassadors can be requested, for free, by 8th – 10th grade classes and high schools. (For more information, please visit: http://www.formidling.dk/sw1811.asp) This arrangement is sponsored by Novo Nordisk and Novozymes, and administered by Danish Science Factory.