Is dynamic autocrine insulin signaling possible? A mathematical model predicts picomolar concentrations of extracellular monomeric insulin within human pancreatic islets

PLoS One. 2013 Jun 14;8(6):e64860. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0064860. Print 2013.


Insulin signaling is essential for β-cell survival and proliferation in vivo. Insulin also has potent mitogenic and anti-apoptotic actions on cultured β-cells, with maximum effect in the high picomolar range and diminishing effect at high nanomolar doses. In order to understand whether these effects of insulin are constitutive or can be subjected to physiological modulation, it is essential to estimate the extracellular concentration of monomeric insulin within an intact islet. Unfortunately, the in vivo concentration of insulin monomers within the islet cannot be measured directly with current technology. Here, we present the first mathematical model designed to estimate the levels of monomeric insulin within the islet extracellular space. Insulin is released as insoluble crystals that exhibit a delayed dissociation into hexamers, dimers, and eventually monomers, which only then can act as signaling ligands. The rates at which different forms of insulin dissolve in vivo have been estimated from studies of peripheral insulin injection sites. We used this and other information to formulate a mathematical model to estimate the local insulin concentration within a single islet as a function of glucose. Model parameters were estimated from existing literature. Components of the model were validated using experimental data, if available. Model analysis predicted that the majority of monomeric insulin in the islet is that which has been returned from the periphery, and the concentration of intra-islet monomeric insulin varies from ~50-300 pM when glucose is in the physiological range. Thus, our results suggest that the local concentration of monomeric insulin within the islet is in the picomolar 'sweet spot' range of insulin doses that activate the insulin receptor and have the most potent effects on β-cells in vitro. Together with experimental data, these estimations support the concept that autocrine/paracrine insulin signalling within the islet is dynamic, rather than constitutive and saturated.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Algorithms
  • Autocrine Communication*
  • Extracellular Fluid / metabolism
  • Glucose / physiology
  • Humans
  • Insulin / physiology*
  • Insulin-Secreting Cells / physiology*
  • Islets of Langerhans / cytology
  • Kinetics
  • Models, Biological*
  • Signal Transduction


  • Insulin
  • Glucose