Scientists are developing a new insulin pill that could spare millions of diabetic people the pain of daily injections or using an insulin pump.
The World Health Organization’s statistics show that as many as 420 million people suffer from diabetes, with approximately 3.7 million deaths caused by the disease every year.
What is diabetes?
Diabetes is a metabolic condition where the body’s inability to produce sufficient insulin results in high glucose levels in the blood.
Two types of diabetes exist, known as Type 1 diabetes and Type 2 diabetes, both of which can be fatal due to organ damage.
Type 1 diabetes is usually diagnosed during childhood and is known as an autoimmune disorder. However, it can develop later in life, and needs to be treated with a daily dose of insulin through injection or an insulin pump.
Type 2 diabetes develops due to the body’s deteriorating ability to develop sufficient insulin, which is largely associated with inactivity, obesity, and poor lifestyle choices. It can be corrected with physical exercise and a healthy diet, but often requires medication or insulin treatment.
Approximately 90% of all diabetics today are diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, and only 10% have Type 1 diabetes. The Type 1 sufferers have to inject themselves with insulin daily, while only some of the Type 2 victims are required to.
What is insulin?
Insulin is a hormone that is produced in the pancreas, which helps to convert glucose into fuel for energy.
Without sufficient insulin, blood sugar levels become imbalanced and can result in blood sugar levels that are too high (hyperglycemia) or too low (hypoglycemia).
What is being developed?
Daily insulin injections can be invasive and painful, which is why scientists are developing a simpler way to administer the hormone.
By developing an oral medicine, there will be no need for an external jab, and the insulin will be delivered exactly where it needs to go through tiny vesicles. These new vesicles will occur as lipid molecules, which will serve as the normal building blocks of healthy fats.
According to Professor Mary McCourt of Niagara University in New York, the biggest challenge that scientists are still facing is getting the insulin to pass through the highly acidic environment of the stomach without significant degradation. It will need to move through the large intestine and into the small intestine, where it can be absorbed into the bloodstream to balance blood sugar levels.
Packaging the insulin inside a protective casing to shield it from stomach acids is also currently being considered. One company previously developed an inhalable insulin product, but the idea did not ever fully take off despite positive reviews.
Professor McCourt and her team have developed a brand new approach. “We have developed a new technology called a Cholestosome™, which is a neutral, lipid-based particle that is capable of doing some very interesting things”, she said.
The patented Cholestosomes™ have demonstrated the ability to remain protected throughout the digestive process, being encapsulated in a coating made of fat. According to researchers, this is unlike any other lipid-based drug carrier.
Dr. Lawrence Mielnicki of Niagara University confirmed: “Most liposomes need to be packaged in a polymer coating for protection. Here, we’re just using simple lipid esters to make vesicles with the drug molecules inside.”
The Cholestosomes™ are recognized by the body as absorbable compounds, which allows them to enter the bloodstream and be broken up to release insulin to the cells.
How effective is it?
By determining the optimal level of acidity of the solution, the researchers were able to pack the most amount of insulin into the Cholestosomes™.
Studies showed that the newly developed oral insulin was highly effective on rats, which proves to be a promising development for diabetic sufferers.
The formulations are still being optimized and will be further tested on animals before pursuing human trials. Researchers plan to present their findings at the national American Chemical Society meeting in Philadelphia.