66. Insulin and oral hypoglycaemic agents. Glucagon

Page created on November 23, 2019. Last updated on August 29, 2022 at 21:27



  • Rapid-acting insulin
    • Insulin lispro (Humalog®)
    • Insulin aspart (NovoRapid®)
  • Short-acting insulin
    • Soluble insulin (Actrapid®)
  • Intermediate-acting insulin
    • NPH insulin (Insulatard®)
  • Long-acting insulin
    • Insulin glargine
    • Insulin detemir
  • Mixed insulin

The different insulin preparations have different pharmacokinetic properties. This is accomplished by modifying the insulin or by suspending insulin in certain solutions. The preparations are almost always given subcutaneously.

Most of the modified insulins (insulin analogues) differ from normal insulin by just a few amino acids. These small changes are enough to give the modified insulins different pharmacokinetic properties, and can make them act slower, longer, shorter or quicker. The only exception is NPH insulin, which is normal insulin in a suspension which causes the insulin to form crystals. Insulin is released slowly from the crystal.

Mixed insulin is a mix of short-acting insulin and intermediate-acting insulin.

The following table shows the pharmacokinetic properties of the different insulin preparations.

Insulin preparation

Onset of action Peak of action Duration of action
Rapid-acting insulin 5 – 30 min 30 min – 3 hours

3 – 5 hours

Short-acting insulin

30 min 2,5 – 5 hours 4 – 24 hours
Intermediate-acting insulin 1 – 2 hours 4 – 12 hours

14 – 24 hours

Long-acting insulin

1,5 – 4 hours No peak

24 hours


  • Type 2 diabetics who don’t achieve sufficient glycaemic control with oral antidiabetic drugs
  • Type 2 diabetics who get pregnant
    • All oral antidiabetics are contraindicated during pregnancy
  • Type 2 diabetes with end-stage renal failure
  • Hyperglycaemic emergency (IV soluble insulin)
  • Type 1 diabetes
  • Hyperkalaemia
    • Given together with glucose, as insulin causes potassium to enter cells


This is not part of the curriculum.

There are multiple regimens of insulin therapy, each of which have advantages and disadvantages.


Time and form of injection Advantages Disadvantages
Conventional insulin therapy Twice daily injection of mixed insulin Simple, requires minimal patient education

High compliance required as patients must adhere to a rigid diet and exercise plan

Intensive insulin therapy

1-2 x daily basal intermediate-acting insulin + bolus short acting before meals Optimal glycaemic control, more flexibility in diet and exercise Complex and time-consuming, high risk of hypoglycaemia, high compliance required
Basal supported oral therapy Long-acting insulin before bedtime + oral antidiabetics Improved glycaemic control compared to oral antidiabetic monotherapy

Increased risk for hypoglycaemia compared to oral monotherapy

Adverse effects:

  • Hypoglycaemia
  • Lipodystrophy
  • Allergic reactions (rare)
  • Antibody formation against modified insulin (rare)

Avoiding hypoglycaemia when taking insulin is very difficult. The dosage of insulin must be adjusted according to the carbohydrate intake, amount of physical activity and during stress reactions like surgery or illness. If the dose of insulin is too small the glycaemic control is not optimal. If it is too large hypoglycaemia occurs. Most type 2 diabetics have experienced hypoglycaemia and would rather avoid it. For this reason, they often administer too little insulin rather than too much.

Lipodystrophy occurs if the subcutaneous injection is always performed at the same site and can result in a lump or atrophy of the skin at the site. This can result in impaired insulin absorption from the site.

Oral antidiabetic drugs

Oral antidiabetic drugs, sometimes called hypoglycaemic drugs, are drugs which are used to treat hyperglycaemia associated with type 2 diabetes mellitus. Their use should be limited to those who can’t reach satisfactory glycaemic control with lifestyle changes only.

The first-choice drug is metformin. If metformin is contraindicated another drug should be used. If metformin is not sufficient in reaching satisfactory glycaemic control another antidiabetic drug should be added.


  • Pregnancy (except maybe metformin)
  • Surgery
  • Severe infections
  • Renal failure
    • A contraindication for most oral antidiabetics

Before and during pregnancy, severe infections and surgery all oral antidiabetic drugs should be replaced with insulin monotherapy. Metformin is the exception, as more and more evidence shows that it’s likely safe in pregnancy. However, it’s not recommended in pregnancy yet.


Metformin is a biguanide.


Metformin is the first line drug for all patients with type 2 diabetes. If the blood glucose level is not adequately controlled with metformin another antidiabetic drug can be added.

Other indications:

  • Polycystic ovary syndrome
  • Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease

Mechanism of action:

The exact targets of metformin are not well known, but their biochemical actions on the body are. These include:

  • Reduced gluconeogenesis
  • Increased glucose uptake and utilization in skeletal muscle (= decreased insulin resistance)
  • Reduced carbohydrate absorption from the intestine
  • Increased β-oxidation
  • Reduced LDL and VLDL

Metformin inhibits mitochondrial oxidative phosphorylation, thereby increasing the intracellular level of AMP. This activates AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK). AMPK then stimulates the release of GLP-1, which again stimulates insulin release. AMPK also decreases the transcription of gluconeogenetic enzymes.


Metformin has a short half-life (3h) and is excreted unchanged in the urine.


  • Causes weight loss or at least weight stabilization
  • Carries no risk for hypoglycaemia
  • Cheap


  • Contraindicated in renal failure, which is common in T2D

Side effects:

  • GI symptoms
  • B12 deficiency
  • Metallic taste in mouth

Metformin can cause metformin-associated lactic acidosis, a very rare but potentially fatal complication. It primarily occurs when the contraindications are disregarded.


  • Renal failure (GFR < 30 mL/min)
  • Severe liver failure
  • Heart failure
  • Alcoholism
  • Surgery
  • Iodinated contrast medium

Metformin is eliminated by the kidneys, which is why renal failure is a contraindication. The liver eliminates lactate, and so severe liver failure increases the risk for lactic acidosis. Heart failure and alcoholism also increase the risk.

Metformin must be stopped before surgery and before giving iodinated contrast, as these two factors increase the risk for lactic acidosis.



  • Glimepiride
  • Glipizide

There are many sulfonylureas. Some are long-acting, and some are short-acting. The long-acting ones have increased risk for hypoglycaemia and so are less used. Both glimepiride and glipizide are short-acting ones.

These drugs are rarely used anymore due having high risk for hypoglycaemia, causing weight gain, and the newer introduction of better oral antidiabetics.

Mechanism of action:

Sulfonylureas bind to a sulfonylurea receptor on ATP-gated K+ channels on pancreatic β-cells. This causes the channels to close, which causes depolarization of the β-cells. This causes insulin release.


  • Acts quickly


  • High risk for hypoglycaemia
  • Risk for interactions via plasma protein binding
  • Weight gain


Sulfonylureas have strong plasma protein binding, predisposing them to interactions with other drugs. Most sulfonylureas are eliminated by the kidney.


Beta blockers mask the symptoms of hypoglycaemia and should therefore not be taken together with sulfonylureas (or in any patient with high risk for hypoglycaemia).

Side effects:

  • Hypoglycaemia
  • Weight gain (increased appetite)
  • Disulfiram-like effect

The hypoglycaemia can be severe and prolonged.


Meglitinides have similar mechanism of action as sulfonylureas but are structurally different.


  • Repaglinide
  • Nateglinide

Mechanism of action:

Same as for sulfonylureas, although meglitinides bind to a slightly different binding site than the sulfonylureas.

Side effects:

Same as for sulfonylureas but cause less weight gain and have lower risk for developing hypoglycaemia.

GLP-1 agonists/analogues

These drugs are also called incretin mimetics, as GLP-1 is a type of incretin. GLP stands for glucagon-like peptide.


GLP-1 and GIP are incretins. Incretins are released from enteroendocrine cells in the GI tract in response to food intake. The incretins stimulate insulin release and inhibit glucagon release, causing a net reduction of blood glucose.

The incretins are inactivated by an enzyme called dipeptidyl peptidase-4 (DPP-4).


  • Liraglutide
  • Semaglutide


GLP-1 analogues have proven beneficial effects on cardiovascular disease and should (together with SGLT-2 inhibitors) be consideres as first-line choices after metformin in patients with both DM2 and cardiovascular disease. They also cause moderate weight loss, which is almost always beneficial for DM2 patients.

Some GLP-1 analogues are also indicated for the treatment of obesity even in the absence of DM2.


The older GLP-1 agonists are injected subcutaneously once daily or weekly, but nowadays newer oral formulations exist as well.


  • Decreases appetite -> weight loss


  • Long-term safety not established
  • Must be injected
  • Expensive

Side effects:

  • GI symptoms
SGLT-2 inhibitors (gliflozins)


  • Empagliflozin (Jardiance®)
  • Dapagliflozin (Forxiga®)


SGLT-2 inhibitors have proven beneficial effects on cardiovascular disease and should (together with GLP-1 analogues) be consideres as first-line choices after metformin in patients with both DM2 and cardiovascular disease. They also cause moderate weight loss, which is almost always beneficial for DM2 patients.

Without heart failure, it may be more relevant in treating young males, as they’re less prone to developing UTIs and genital infections.

SGLT-2 inhibitors have proven benefit in heart failure and is recently (2021) indicated for all cases of heart failure, with or without DM2.

Mechanism of action:

These drugs inhibit SGLT-2, the transport protein responsible for the reabsorption of glucose in the proximal tubule of the kidney. When this transporter is inhibited filtered glucose cannot be reabsorbed, causing glucosuria. Up to 70 grams of glucose can be lost per day. The filtered glucose acts as an osmotic diuretic.

The mechanism by which SGLT2 inhibitors are beneficial in heart failure is still unknown.


  • Weight loss
  • Decreased blood pressure
  • Reduced cardiovascular mortality


  • Long-term safety not established

Side effects:

  • Urinary tract infections
  • Genital infections
  • Dehydrations
  • Hypotension

SGLT2 use during acute illness or surgery can yield normoglycaemic ketoacidosis. Administration of these drugs must therefore be paused in these cases.

DPP-4 inhibitors (gliptins)

DPP-4 inhibitors are also called gliptins.


  • Saxagliptin
  • Linagliptin

Mechanism of action:

Gliptins inhibit DPP-4, the role of which is to inactivate endogenous incretins.


Gliptins are orally absorbed and therefore taken PO. Unlike GLP-1 agonists they don’t decrease appetite.


  • Long-term safety not established
  • Expensive

Side effects:

  • GI symptoms
  • Heart failure

Like for GLP-1 agonists there is no long-term experience with DPP-4 inhibitors, so we don’t really know how effective they are long-term. Studies have shown that they significantly increase the risk for heart failure. They’re also expensive.

Thiazolidinediones (glitazones)


  • Pioglitazone
  • Rosiglitazone


Often combined with metformin. Can be used as monotherapy in patients with severe renal failure. They’re not preferred anymore due to their potentially severe adverse effects. Rosiglitazone is no longer on the market.

Mechanism of action:

Thiazolidinediones activate the transcription factor PPAR-γ. This transcription factor increases the transcription of genes involved in the glucose and lipid metabolism, most importantly:

  • Lipoprotein lipase
  • Fatty acid transporter protein
  • GLUT4
  • Adipocyte fatty acid binding protein

The result is increased lipogenesis and enhanced cellular uptake of fatty acids and glucose.

Side effects:

  • Fluid retention
  • Increased risk of heart failure
  • Weight gain
  • Increased risk of osteoporosis
  • Increased risk of AMI (rosi) and bladder cancer (pio)
Alpha-glucosidase inhibitors


  • Acarbose
  • Miglitol

Mechanism of action:

Alpha-glucosidase is an enzyme of the brush border of the small intestine. The enzyme cleaves disaccharides like sucrose, increasing their absorption.

By inhibiting this enzyme these drugs reduce carbohydrate absorption. The undigested carbohydrates reach the colon, where intestinal bacteria degrade them into gases.


  • No risk for hypoglycaemia


  • Must be taken three times daily

Side effects:

  • GI symptoms
    • Flatulence
    • Abdominal pain
    • Diarrhoea


  • Severe hypoglycaemia
  • Beta blocker overdose-related cardiogenic shock

Glucagon is given IM in cases of severe hypoglycaemia if administering oral or IV glucose is impossible.

Mechanism of action:

Glucagon rapidly stimulates gluconeogenesis and glycogenolysis in the liver, quickly raising the blood glucose.

Activation of the glucagon receptor activates adenylate cyclase which increases intracellular levels of cAMP. By increasing cAMP in the myocardial cells, glucagon will elicit positive heart effects, thereby reversing the beta-blocking effect on the heart.

6 thoughts on “66. Insulin and oral hypoglycaemic agents. Glucagon”

  1. And for meglitinides they bind to a different site on the ATP-sens K+ channel onthe cell membrane “outside the beta cell” making them having very rapid onset of action and more preferable in people with hyperglycemia after consuming a meal.
    Idkif it’s important or not🤷🏻‍♂️

    1. It is true that meglitinides bind to a slightly different site than sulfonylureas. I think it’s a minor detail, but I’ll add it just for you.

      The rest are unnessecary details for pharma. Meglitinides aren’t much used anymore anyway.

  2. Hey! Mech. Of action for sufonylureas they bind to a sulfonylurea receptor on ATP-SENSITIVE K+ channels on pancreatic β-cells.
    Upon binding of ATP those channels close causing depolarization of the membrane——> ca2+ influx—> insulin release.
    Now I know why you hate biochem the most 🤣 ✌🏻

    1. ATP-gated and ATP-sensitive are synonyms. I don’t think the other details are important for pharmacology.

  3. in the lecture she said GLITAZONES are not important cause a lot of pharmaceutical companies stopped producing them in 2013 .

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