Selective divalent copper chelation for the treatment of diabetes mellitus

Curr Med Chem. 2012;19(17):2828-60. doi: 10.2174/092986712800609715.


Oxidative stress and mitochondrial dysfunction have been identified by many workers as key pathogenic mechanisms in ageing-related metabolic, cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases (for example diabetes mellitus, heart failure and Alzheimer's disease). However, although numerous molecular mechanisms have been advanced to account for these processes, their precise nature remains obscure. This author has previously suggested that, in such diseases, these two mechanisms are likely to occur as manifestations of a single underlying disturbance of copper regulation. Copper is an essential but highly-toxic trace metal that is closely regulated in biological systems. Several rare genetic disorders of copper homeostasis are known in humans: these primarily affect various proteins that mediate intracellular copper transport processes, and can lead either to tissue copper deficiency or overload states. These examples illustrate how impaired regulation of copper transport pathways can cause organ damage and provide important insights into the impact of defects in specific molecular processes, including those catalyzed by the copper-transporting ATPases, ATP7A (mutated in Menkes disease), ATP7B (Wilson's disease), and the copper chaperones such as those for cytochrome c oxidase, SCO1 and SCO2. In diabetes, impaired copper regulation manifests as elevations in urinary CuII excretion, systemic chelatable-CuII and full copper balance, in increased pro-oxidant stress and defective antioxidant defenses, and in progressive damage to the blood vessels, heart, kidneys, retina and nerves. Linkages between dysregulated copper and organ damage can be demonstrated by CuII-selective chelation, which simultaneously prevents/reverses both copper dysregulation and organ damage. Pathogenic structures in blood vessels that contribute to binding and localization of catalytically-active CuII probably include advanced glycation end products (AGEs), as well as atherosclerotic plaque: the latter probably undergoes AGE-modification itself. Defective copper regulation mediates organ damage through two general processes that occur simultaneously in the same individual: elevation of CuII-mediated pro-oxidant stress and impairment of copper-catalyzed antioxidant defence mechanisms. This author has proposed that diabetes-evoked copper dysregulation is an important new target for therapeutic intervention to prevent/reverse organ damage in diabetes, heart failure, and neurodegenerative diseases, and that triethylenetetramine (TETA) is the first in a new class of anti-diabetic molecules, which function by targetting these copper-mediated pathogenic mechanisms. TETA prevents tissue damage and causes organ regeneration by acting as a highly-selective CuII chelator which suppresses copper-mediated oxidative stress and restores anti-oxidant defenses. My group has employed TETA in a comprehensive programme of nonclinical studies and proof-of-principle clinical trials, thereby characterizing copper dysregulation in diabetes and identifying numerous linked cellular and molecular mechanisms though which TETA exerts its therapeutic actions. Many of the results obtained in nonclinical models with respect to the molecular mechanisms of diabetic organ damage have not yet been replicated in patients' tissues so their applicability to the human disease must be considered as inferential until the results of informative clinical studies become available. Based on evidence from the studies reviewed herein, trientine is now proceeding into the later stages of pharmaceutical development for the treatment of heart failure and other diabetic complications.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Chelating Agents / metabolism
  • Chelating Agents / pharmacology
  • Chelating Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Clinical Trials as Topic
  • Copper / deficiency
  • Copper / metabolism*
  • Diabetes Complications / drug therapy
  • Diabetes Complications / metabolism
  • Diabetes Mellitus / drug therapy*
  • Diabetes Mellitus / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Oxidative Stress / drug effects


  • Chelating Agents
  • Copper