A recent study published in the official scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that a molecule of insulin modified in the lab can adjust the levels of blood sugar in mice suffering from diabetes. Yes, we are talking about treating diabetes in mice, but the discovery is actually quite important. All the other times scientists tried to use altered insulin in treating diabetes in animals, they have failed.
The consequences of possibly rendering this finding into a version of human treatment would be tremendous: lowering the required amount of insulin injections necessary for diabetes patients and thus stopping the consequences of complication due to administering too much insulin.
In the United States only, more than 29 million people suffer from one form or another of diabetes, a health problem which causes the body not to produce enough insulin in order to adjust the levels of sugar in blood. Some other forms of diabetes produce no insulin and others ineffective insulin.
Therefore, people suffering from diabetes need to regulate their blood sugar artificially, by providing the body the insulin it needs, thus allowing the sugar in the blood flow to be absorbed in muscles and tissues. This, however, is accompanied by permanently monitoring blood sugar levels and following a strict and healthy diet. And even when patients respect these guidelines rigorously, unfortunate complications can still occur.
Daniel Anderson, co-author of the study and also a molecular geneticist at the Harvard–MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology, thinks that the insulin injected nowadays is dumb, because the treatment activates in the system, even if the blood sugar is high or not. The main consequence of this process is a high risk of hypoglycemia – when blood sugar is low and insulin enters the system. Hypoglycemia in regard to insulin treatments send approximately 100,000 people to the ER, with problems like fainting, aggressive seizures and uncomfortable rapid heartbeats.
Dr. Anderson explains that the insulin treatment is indispensable in the case of patients with diabetes. However, it does not work as real insulin, produced naturally by the human body would. In a healthy body, insulin works great, because the pancreas does its job of adjusting the glucose levels. In a patient affected by diabetes, however, the right dosage of insulin is very hard to find.
This is why it would be a huge breakthrough if experts could create an artificial form of insulin which would outsmart the natural human-produced insulin. Finding that would mean taking the first step to accurately replicate the role of a healthy pancreas in a healthy body.
Anderson’s team has been trying to find a way of chemically modifying a molecule of insulin, and it did so by injecting it with an acid. This alteration helped insulin bind to sugar found in the blood stream – a feature which normal insulin doesn’t have – and adjust the sugar levels found in the blood of a diabetic mouse. Even though the process is still not fully understood by the researchers, the main idea is that they can “instruct” the insulin to affect the patient only if the sugar levels indicate it. Binding insulin to sugar seems to result in lower possibilities of causing hypoglycemia, according to Anderson.
In spite of the existing questions without answers, the team of researchers was able to create molecules of insulin capable of readjusting sugar levels to normal in blood. They tested it on mice which were given an injection of glucose, and the levels returned to normal a lot faster than those of the mice which were given regular insulin or other forms which are now available to people who have diabetes. The best form of chemically modified insulin was able to regulate sugar levels after multiple injections with glucose, in a timeframe of 13 hours.
Since the report only studied the effects on mice, it might take a bit long before the improved form of insulin will reach the shelves, according to Anderson. There are a lot of things which need to work out in order for the human trials would be approved, and that only in three to four years. And even after human trials, we would have to wait for the FDA approval, which is another tiresome process which takes a few more years.
Before all this will happen, the researchers are working on making the special insulin more effective. Anderson says that the current modified form is above the performance of traditional insulin, but it needs perfecting. The idea is to make the insulin respond according to the sugar levels, so even if the patient would be injected with 10 times more insulin than he needed, he wouldn’t become hypoglycemic. The transition between tests on mice and human trials will be made only after multiple studies will be conducted.
Image Source: JDRF