Managing diabetes could one day be as easy as popping a pill

New research gives hope that diabetics may one day be able to take a daily probiotic pill to manage their condition (Photo: Shutterstock)

Researchers at Cornell University have successfully treated diabetic rats by engineering a strain of lactobacillus, a rod-shaped bacteria common in the human gut, resulting in up to 30 percent lower blood glucose levels. The technology could pave the way for a new treatment for both type 1 and type 2 diabetes that could one day see managing diabetes be as easy as taking a daily probiotic pill..

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), diabetes is one of the leading causes of death and disability worldwide. In the US, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that around 29 million people have the disease, many of whom aren't even aware they have it. The Cornell study could take us one step closer to a safe, effective way for people to control the disease.

In their proof of principle study the researchers modified a strain of human lactobacillus to secrete a protein called Glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1), which helps manage blood sugar levels, and administered it orally to diabetic rats for 90 days.

The upper intestinal epithelial cells of the diabetic rats were converted into cells that acted very much like pancreatic beta cells, which in healthy people monitor blood glucose levels and secrete insulin to balance glucose levels.

The rats with high blood glucose developed insulin-producing cells within the upper intestine in numbers sufficient to replace 25 to 33 percent of the insulin capacity of nondiabetic healthy rats.

"The amount of time to reduce glucose levels following a meal is the same as in a normal rat, … and it is matched to the amount of glucose in the blood, just as it would be with a normal-functioning pancreas," says John March, professor of biological and environmental engineering at Cornell University and the paper’s senior author. "It’s moving the center of glucose control from the pancreas to the upper intestine."

Conversely, the engineered probiotic did not appear to affect the blood glucose levels of healthy rats.

The technology is being licensed by biopharmaceutical company BioPancreate, which is working to get the therapy into production for human use.

"Since this has not been tested in humans we do not know the extent to which it will replace needed insulin making capacity," March told Gizmag. "It is possible that someone who currently injects insulin will not have to anymore, but it is perhaps more likely that it will be used in conjunction with other methods to maintain healthy glucose levels."

Future work will test higher doses to see if a complete treatment can be achieved, and the team is looking at many avenues for improving this technology for both diabetes and several other diseases, says March.

The news comes in the wake of research efforts from other groups that have shown promise for probiotics being used to cure allergies, lower levels of "bad" cholesterol, and even prevent obesity.

The Cornell team's study was published Jan. 27 in the journal Diabetes.

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