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Researchers develop insulin substitute for treating diabetes orally


November 8, 2011

Daily insulin injections could soo be a thing of the past for many diabetics thanks to the discovery of an insulin substitute that can be taken orally

Daily insulin injections could soo be a thing of the past for many diabetics thanks to the discovery of an insulin substitute that can be taken orally

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The World Diabetes Foundation estimated that some 285 million people, or around 6 percent of the world's adult population, were living with diabetes in 2010. For type 1 diabetics and up to 27 percent of type 2 diabetics, that means daily insulin injections, which can be uncomfortable and inconvenient. Since most people would rather pop a pill than get a shot, researchers have been trying to develop an oral form of insulin. However, this has proven difficult because insulin is a protein that is broken down in the stomach and gut. Now a team of researchers from Australia's Curtin University has found an insulin substitute to treat diabetes orally that they hope could help take the needle out of diabetes for many people.

In an effort to find a compound that emulates the molecular map of insulin, Professor Erik Helmerhorst and his colleagues at Curtin University in research undertaken with Australian pharmaceutical company Epichem searched the structures of three million compounds.

"We took a 3D molecular map of insulin and identified the key features within this map that are needed for insulin's activity," Prof. Helmerhorst told Gizmag. "We then searched over 3 million small molecules 3D structures for their ability to fit the key features within this insulin map. We found a lead drug molecule that fitted the map and mimicked insulin in specific biological assays and animal models. We have already spent nearly 10 years optimizing this lead molecule."

Unlike insulin, the small drug molecule isn't broken down in the stomach so can be taken orally as a tablet. As well as appealing to people who aren't fond of needles, Prof. Helmerhorst says a tablet would also be cheaper to produce and easier to store than insulin. This would make it easier to distribute in developing countries where the rates of diabetes are on the rise.

Although Prof. Helmerhorst says the insulin substitute could potentially replace the need for injections for sufferers of both type 1 and type 2 diabetes, because type 1 diabetics depend on insulin for their survival, the researchers plan to initially target type 2 diabetics prior to them developing full insulin dependency.

The research is still in the lead optimization stage with clinical trials not expected to begin for another five years or so. Looking for licensees to market the insulin substitute and investors to fund the next stage of development, the Curtin University team recently presented their research and generated a lot of interest at Univation 2011, which aims to showcase research being developed at West Australia's universities to potential investors.

Here's a video giving a brief overview of the team's research.

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag. All articles by Darren Quick

No nasal spray insulin?

Joseph Shimandle

For the diabetics who are \"permanently dependent on insulin\" this is great news. How many could become much healthier if practitioners understood that there are nutritional therapies (that are much cheaper and far more effective at balancing metabolic processes) that patients can administer (with guidance) themselves? This is just another example of finding a solution to some problem, just not the real problem. Most people would rather just pop a pill, making someone else responsible for their health. Insulin is only part of the problem! This isn\'t a cure for anything except the employment of the researchers and a great big shot in the arm for some drug manufacturer.

Elise Johnston

Joseph Do you know that oral substitute of insulin is ordinary Cinnamon!!! I specially recomen the one from Ceylon.


@Elise Blount Johnston. It seems that you are referring to type 2 diabetes only and don\'t seem to know much about the pathology of type 1 diabetes. Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disorder whereby the beta cells in the Pancreas have been destroyed, or mostly destroyed by the body. I am all for the power of good nutrition and natural remedies, but I have found no hint of regeneration of these cells via these methods.

Karik Hill

Unfortunately, medical practitioners are so overloaded with patients, they can\'t take the time to properly educate their patients on how to manage diabetes with just proper diet and exercise. For them, it is far easier and cheaper to hand them a diabetic pen and tell the patient to stab themselves to inject insulin. Plus, there is an entire cottage industry that has risen up to supply diabetics with product that would see decreased income if people knew they could control their diabetes without drugs or insulin... It\'s cheaper and easier, not to mention more profitable, to keep the patient sick than to make them completely healthy!


As noted at the end of the story, of course the research will first be developed for people with Type 2 diabetes. There are many more Type 2\'s than Type 1\'s so a more lucrative market.

That said, as a person with Type 1 insulin dependant diabetes I welcome advances in alternative insulin therapies. Injecting insulin several times per day is more than just an inconvenience. It also creates and enormous amount of waste material (used syringes, insulin bottles). Not every researcher has the background to cure physical diseases.

Good luck in the trials I say.


@Ed - An individual with Type 1 (or insulin deficient/dependent) Diabetes is not simply treatable with good diet and exercise, although it does make you healthier over all. Because Type 1 diabetes is an auto-immune disorder as mentioned by Karik, it is not something that can be remedied by anything but taking insulin injections. This is because your bodies cells depend on insulin as the main way to receive glucose. If glucose cannot get into your cells because there is no insulin present, or the insulin that is made is defective - then you cannot receive proper nutrition within your cells no matter how much you eat.

There is a common misconception with Diabetes that it is only a \"fat\" persons disease, or an unhealthy person\'s disease (ie. eating too much sugar).

Mary Finney
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