The holy grail of diabetes research has long been finding a way to administer insulin by mouth. And that goal may have been reached by scientists at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
Insulin, the hormone produced by the pancreas' beta-cells, was first identified in 1921. Individuals with Type 1 diabetes essentially make no insulin of their own and if it isn't replaced, they will die because they won't be able to utilize the nutrients from food.
Canadian researchers Dr. Frederick Banting (who received the Nobel Prize in 1923 for that work) and Charles Best, showed that it was lack of insulin that caused diabetes. Five years later, insulin was purified and that opened a whole new world for people with diabetes. But since insulin is a protein, it must be injected if swallowed in a pill form the strong stomach acid will inactivate it before it can be absorbed into the blood to do its job.
The only insulin available for diabetic patients to use was that purified from animal pancreases from cows and pigs, for example. It worked, but not perfectly for everyone. Since animal insulin is a foreign protein, some immune systems reacted to it by creating antibodies that rendered it inactive.
Then, in the early 1980s, thanks to genetic engineering, scientists developed bacteria that would produce human insulin the second revolution in diabetes treatment. But even though the human insulin doesn't stimulate antibody production, it still has to be injected sometimes several times per day.
The UC scientists have developed a capsule that resists the acidic environment of the stomach. This capsule doesn't open until it reaches the small intestine, and then it releases insulin-containing patches that stick to the wall of the intestine and let the insulin enter the blood stream. It's still the early days for this treatment since it must undergo extensive testing before it can be used in diabetic humans. But if it passes the tests and is determined to be safe and effective, it will be the next revolution in diabetes treatment.
Having such a means of providing insulin to diabetic individuals will mean that they will have less, or no need, to inject insulin which in turn could lead to better control of the disease.