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James Cantley, Vincent Poitout, and Rebecca L Hull-Meichle

The year 2023 marks 100 years since publication of the first report of a hyperglycemic factor in pancreatic extracts which CP Kimball and John R Murlin named glucagon (from GLUCose AGONist). Glucagon has a range of profound effects on metabolism including, but not limited to, stimulation of hepatic glucose production. Dysregulation of glucagon secretion is a key feature of both major forms of diabetes, leading to the concept that diabetes is a bihormonal disorder. Still, work to fully understand the production and biological effects of glucagon has proceeded at a slower pace compared to that of insulin. A recent resurgence of interest in the islet α cell, the predominant site of glucagon production, has been facilitated in part by technological innovations. This work has led to significant developments in the field, from defining how alpha cells develop, how glucagon is secretion from pancreatic alpha cells is regulated, through to determining the role of glucagon in metabolic homeostasis and the progression of both major forms of diabetes. In addition, glucagon is considered to be a promising target for diabetes therapy, with many new potential applications arising from research in this field. This collection of reviews, led by Guest Editors James Cantley, Rebecca Hull-Meichle and Vincent Poitout, is intended to capture the field’s current understanding of glucagon and alpha cell biology, as well stimulate additional interest and research on this important hormone.

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Andrew W Norris, Katie Larson Ode, Lina Merjaneh, Srinath Sanda, Yaling Yi, Xingshen Sun, John F Engelhardt, and Rebecca L Hull

In cystic fibrosis (CF), ductal plugging and acinar loss result in rapid decline of exocrine pancreatic function. This destructive process results in remodeled islets, with only a modest reduction in insulin-producing β cells. However, β-cell function is profoundly impaired, with decreased insulin release and abnormal glucose tolerance being present even in infants with CF. Ultimately, roughly half the CF subjects develop diabetes (termed CF-related diabetes (CFRD)). Importantly, CFRD increases CF morbidity and mortality via worsening catabolism and pulmonary disease. Current accepted treatment options for CFRD are aimed at insulin replacement, thereby improving glycemia as well as preventing nutritional losses and lung decline. CFRD is a unique form of diabetes with a distinct pathophysiology that is as yet incompletely understood. Recent studies highlight emerging areas of interest. First, islet inflammation and lymphocyte infiltration are common even in young children with CF and may contribute to β-cell failure. Second, controversy exists in the literature regarding the presence/importance of β-cell intrinsic functions of CFTR and its direct role in modulating insulin release. Third, loss of the CF transmembrane conductance regulator (CFTR) from pancreatic ductal epithelium, the predominant site of its synthesis, results in paracrine effects that impair insulin release. Finally, the degree of β-cell loss in CFRD does not appear sufficient to explain the deficit in insulin release. Thus, it may be possible to enhance the function of the remaining β-cells using strategies such as targeting islet inflammation or ductal CFTR deficiency to effectively treat or even prevent CFRD.

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Rebecca L Hull, Joshua R Willard, Matthias D Struck, Breanne M Barrow, Gurkirat S Brar, Sofianos Andrikopoulos, and Sakeneh Zraika

Mouse models are widely used for elucidating mechanisms underlying type 2 diabetes. Genetic background profoundly affects metabolic phenotype; therefore, selecting the appropriate model is critical. Although variability in metabolic responses between mouse strains is now well recognized, it also occurs within C57BL/6 mice, of which several substrains exist. This within-strain variability is poorly understood and could emanate from genetic and/or environmental differences. To better define the within-strain variability, we performed the first comprehensive comparison of insulin secretion from C57BL/6 substrains 6J, 6JWehi, 6NJ, 6NHsd, 6NTac and 6NCrl. In vitro, glucose-stimulated insulin secretion correlated with Nnt mutation status, wherein responses were uniformly lower in islets from C57BL/6J vs C57BL/6N mice. In contrast, in vivo insulin responses after 18 weeks of low fat feeding showed no differences among any of the six substrains. When challenged with a high-fat diet for 18 weeks, C57BL/6J substrains responded with a similar increase in insulin release. However, variability was evident among C57BL/6N substrains. Strikingly, 6NJ mice showed no increase in insulin release after high fat feeding, contributing to the ensuing hyperglycemia. The variability in insulin responses among high-fat-fed C57BL/6N mice could not be explained by differences in insulin sensitivity, body weight, food intake or beta-cell area. Rather, as yet unidentified genetic and/or environmental factor(s) are likely contributors. Together, our findings emphasize that caution should be exercised in extrapolating data from in vitro studies to the in vivo situation and inform on selecting the appropriate C57BL/6 substrain for metabolic studies.

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Sofianos Andrikopoulos, Christine M Massa, Kathryn Aston-Mourney, Alexandra Funkat, Barbara C Fam, Rebecca L Hull, Steven E Kahn, and Joseph Proietto

The increasing production of genetically-modified mouse models has necessitated studies to determine the inherent physiological characteristics of commonly used mouse strains. In this study we examined insulin secretory function in response to an intravenous bolus of glucose or glucose plus arginine in anesthetized C57BL/6, DBA/2 and 129T2 mice fed either a control or high fat diet for 6 weeks. The results show that 129T2 mice had higher fasting plasma glucose levels and lower fasting plasma insulin levels compared with C57BL/6 and DBA/2 mice regardless of diet. Furthermore, 129T2 mice were glucose intolerant and secreted significantly less insulin in response to glucose and glucose plus arginine irrespective of diet compared with the other two strains of mice. DBA/2 mice hypersecreted insulin in response to glucose and glucose plus arginine compared with C57BL/6 and 129T2 mice. Moreover while first phase insulin secretion was appropriately increased in response to the high fat diet in C57BL/6 and 129T2 mice, this was not the case for DBA/2 mice. Mean islet area was decreased in response to a high fat diet in DBA/2 mice, while there was no dietary effect on the other two strains. This study highlights the inherent genetic differences that exist among seemingly normal strains of mice that are commonly used to make transgenic and knockout mice. Understanding these differences will provide researchers with the information to choose the appropriate genetic background on which to express their particular genetic alteration.

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Andrew T Templin, Christine Schmidt, Meghan F Hogan, Nathalie Esser, Richard N Kitsis, Rebecca L Hull, Sakeneh Zraika, and Steven E Kahn

Apoptosis repressor with caspase recruitment domain (ARC) is an endogenous inhibitor of cell death signaling that is expressed in insulin-producing β cells. ARC has been shown to reduce β-cell death in response to diabetogenic stimuli in vitro, but its role in maintaining glucose homeostasis in vivo has not been fully established. Here we examined whether loss of ARC in FVB background mice exacerbates high fat diet (HFD)-induced hyperglycemia in vivo over 24 weeks. Prior to commencing 24-week HFD, ARC−/− mice had lower body weight than wild type (WT) mice. This body weight difference was maintained until the end of the study and was associated with decreased epididymal and inguinal adipose tissue mass in ARC−/− mice. Non-fasting plasma glucose was not different between ARC−/− and WT mice prior to HFD feeding, and ARC−/− mice displayed a greater increase in plasma glucose over the first 4 weeks of HFD. Plasma glucose remained elevated in ARC−/− mice after 16 weeks of HFD feeding, at which time it had returned to baseline in WT mice. Following 24 weeks of HFD, non-fasting plasma glucose in ARC−/− mice returned to baseline and was not different from WT mice. At this final time point, no differences were observed between genotypes in plasma glucose or insulin under fasted conditions or following intravenous glucose administration. However, HFD-fed ARC−/− mice exhibited significantly decreased β-cell area compared to WT mice. Thus, ARC deficiency delays, but does not prevent, metabolic adaptation to HFD feeding in mice, worsening transient HFD-induced hyperglycemia.

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Meghan F Hogan, Daryl J Hackney, Alfred C Aplin, Thomas O Mundinger, Megan J Larmore, Joseph J Castillo, Nathalie Esser, Sakeneh Zraika, and Rebecca L Hull

Islet endothelial cells produce paracrine factors important for islet beta-cell function and survival. Under conditions of type 2 diabetes, islet endothelial cells exhibit a dysfunctional phenotype including increased expression of genes involved in cellular adhesion and inflammation. We sought to determine whether treatment of hyperglycemia with the sodium glucose co-transporter 2 inhibitor empagliflozin, either alone or in combination with metformin, would improve markers of endothelial cell function in islets, assessed ex vivo, and if such an improvement is associated with improved insulin secretion in a mouse model of diabetes in vivo. For these studies, db/db diabetic mice and non-diabetic littermate controls were treated for 6 weeks with empagliflozin or metformin, either alone or in combination. For each treatment group, expression of genes indicative of islet endothelial dysfunction was quantified. Islet endothelial and beta-cell area was assessed by morphometry of immunochemically stained pancreas sections. Measurements of plasma glucose and insulin secretion during an intravenous glucose tolerance test were performed on vehicle and drug treated diabetic animals. We found that expression of endothelial dysfunction marker genes is markedly increased in diabetic mice. Treatment with either empagliflozin or metformin lowered expression of the dysfunction marker genes ex vivo, which correlated with improved glycemic control, and increased insulin release in vivo. Empagliflozin treatment was more effective than metformin alone, with a combination of the two drugs demonstrating the greatest effects. Improving islet endothelial function through strategies such as empagliflozin/metformin treatment may provide an effective approach for improving insulin release in human type 2 diabetes.