BACKGROUND: Skeletal muscle wasting is often associated with insulin resistance. A major regulator of muscle mass is the transforming growth factor β (TGF-β) superfamily, including activin A, which causes atrophy. TGF-β superfamily ligands also negatively regulate insulin-sensitive proteins, but whether this pathway contributes to insulin action remains to be determined.
METHODS: To elucidate if TGF-β superfamily ligands regulate insulin action, we used an adeno-associated virus gene editing approach to overexpress an activin A inhibitor, follistatin (Fst288), in mouse muscle of lean and diet-induced obese mice. We determined basal and insulin-stimulated 2-deoxy-glucose uptake using isotopic tracers in vivo. Furthermore, to evaluate whether circulating Fst and activin A concentrations are associated with obesity, insulin resistance, and weight loss in humans, we analysed serum from morbidly obese subjects before, 1 week, and 1 year after Roux-en-Y gastric bypass (RYGB).
RESULTS: Fst288 muscle overexpression markedly increased in vivo insulin-stimulated (but not basal) glucose uptake (+75%, P < 0.05) and increased protein expression and intracellular insulin signalling of AKT, TBC1D4, PAK1, pyruvate dehydrogenase-E1α, and p70S6K, while decreasing TBC1D1 signaling (P < 0.05). Fst288 increased both basal and insulin-stimulated protein synthesis, but no correlation was observed between the Fst288-driven hypertrophy and the increase in insulin-stimulated glucose uptake. Importantly, Fst288 completely normalized muscle glucose uptake in insulin-resistant diet-induced obese mice. RYGB surgery doubled circulating Fst and reduced activin A (-24%, P < 0.05) concentration 1 week after surgery before any significant weight loss in morbidly obese normoglycemic patients, while major weight loss after 1 year did not further change the concentrations.
CONCLUSIONS: We here present evidence that Fst is a potent regulator of insulin action in muscle, and in addition to AKT and p70S6K, we identify TBC1D1, TBC1D4, pyruvate dehydrogenase-E1α, and PAK1 as Fst targets. Circulating Fst more than doubled post-RYGB surgery, a treatment that markedly improved insulin sensitivity, suggesting a role for Fst in regulating glycaemic control. These findings demonstrate the therapeutic potential of inhibiting TGF-β superfamily ligands to improve insulin action and Fst's relevance to muscle wasting-associated insulin-resistant conditions in mice and humans.