Clinical Information Discusses physiology, pathophysiology, and general clinical aspects, as they relate to a laboratory test
Proinsulin is the precursor of insulin and C-peptide. Following synthesis, proinsulin is packaged into secretory granules, where it is processed to C-peptide and insulin by prohormone convertases (PC1/3 and PC2) and carboxypeptidase E. Only 1% to 3% of proinsulin is secreted intact. However, because proinsulin has a longer half-life than insulin, circulating proinsulin concentrations are in the range of 5% to 30% of circulating insulin concentrations on a molar basis, with the higher relative proportions seen after meals and in patients with insulin resistance or early type 2 diabetes. Proinsulin can bind to the insulin receptor and exhibits 5% to 10% of the metabolic activity of insulin.
Proinsulin levels might be elevated in patients with insulin-producing islet cell tumors (insulinomas). These patients suffer from hypoglycemic attacks due to inappropriate secretion of insulin by the tumors. The biochemical diagnosis of insulinoma rests primarily on demonstrating non-suppressed insulin levels in the presence of hypoglycemia (blood glucose <45 mg/dL). The diagnosis can be difficult, as tumors might be small or secrete insulin only episodically. The use of hypoglycemic drugs (eg, sulfonylurea) or insulin injections can also mimic insulinoma. Diagnostic evaluations frequently require a prolonged fast (72 hours), as well as supplementary tests (in addition to insulin and glucose measurements) including a sulfonylurea screen and measurement of C-peptide, proinsulin and beta-hydroxybutyrate. The inappropriate over-secretion of insulin by insulinomas causes release of increased numbers of immature secretory granules with incompletely processed proinsulin, resulting in elevated serum/plasma proinsulin concentrations. This relative over-secretion of proinsulin insulinomas tends to be most marked in the fasting state, when proinsulin normally does not account for more than 5% of insulin concentrations on a molar basis.
Proinsulin is strikingly elevated in PC1/3 deficiency. These patients have defects in the processing of multiple peptide hormones and suffer from diabetes, adrenal insufficiency, infertility, and obesity. Affected individuals typically have red hair regardless of racial background. Mutations in the proinsulin molecule have been reported that affect PC cleavage efficiency or subsequent proinsulin metabolism. These mutations can also lead to markedly elevated proinsulin levels, but are usually not accompanied by diabetes, or any other hormonal abnormalities.
As part of the diagnostic workup of suspected insulinoma
As part of the diagnostic workup of patients with suspected PC1/3 deficiency
As part of the diagnostic workup of patients with suspected proinsulin mutations
Normal individuals will have proinsulin concentrations below the upper limit of the normal fasting reference range (20 pmol/L) when hypoglycemic (blood glucose <45-60 mg/dL). Conversely, most (>80%) insulinoma patients will have proinsulin concentrations above the upper limit of the reference range. The sensitivity and specificity for a diagnosis of insulinoma during hypoglycemia are approximately 75% and near 100%, respectively, at the 20 pmol/L cutoff. A higher sensitivity (>95%) can be achieved using a 5 pmol/L cutoff, and this is the cutoff recommended by the Mayo Clinic's highly experienced hypoglycemia team to avoid missing cases. However, the lower cutoff results in a reduced specificity (approximately 40%), emphasizing the need for a combination of different tests to assure accurate biochemical diagnosis.
Patients with PC1/3 deficiency have low, or sometimes undetectable, insulin levels and substantially elevated proinsulin levels, exceeding the upper limit of the reference range substantially in the fasting state and rising even higher after food intake. Many other hormonal abnormalities are also present, including cortisol deficiency (because of lack of processing of pro-opiomelanocortin to adrenocorticotropic hormone and other peptides), infertility and, often, morbid obesity.
This assay demonstrates no cross-reactivity with insulin or C-peptide.
Cautions Discusses conditions that may cause diagnostic confusion, including improper specimen collection and handling, inappropriate test selection, and interfering substances
To avoid misdiagnoses, all proinsulin measurements used in the diagnostic workup of patients with hypoglycemia must be interpreted in the context of coexisting illnesses, the blood glucose concentration at the time of sampling, and other test results (ie, insulin, C-peptide, beta-hydroxybutyrate, and sulfonylurea drug screen). For example, patients with chronic renal failure or type 2 diabetes mellitus can have increased proinsulin, C-peptide and insulin values, but usually without suppressed (<45 g/dL) blood glucose.
Reference Values Describes reference intervals and additional information for interpretation of test results. May include intervals based on age and sex when appropriate. Intervals are Mayo-derived, unless otherwise designated. If an interpretive report is provided, the reference value field will state this.
Clinical References Provides recommendations for further in-depth reading of a clinical nature
1. Kao PC, Taylor RL, Service FJ: Proinsulin by immunochemiluminometric assay for the diagnosis of insulinoma. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 1994;78(5):1048-1051
2. Service FJ: Hypoglycemic disorders. N Engl J Med 1995;322(17):1144-1152
3. Steiner DF: The proprotein convertases. Cur Opin Chem Biol 1998;2(1):31-39
4. Vezzosi D, Bennet A., Fauvel J, Caron P: Insulin, C-peptide and proinsulin for the biochemical diagnosis of hypoglycemia related to endogenous hyperinsulinism. Eur J Endocrinol 2007;157(1):75-83