Chemical ‘tag’ may allow insulin to be taken in pills, making daily injections to manage diabetes a thing of the past


There are currently around 400,000 people in the UK living with type I diabetes. In order to stay healthy, they require daily injections of insulin for the rest of their lives.

Now, a method of chemically tagging drugs developed by a team at the University of California, Riverside could mean they will soon be able to take their life-saving medication in pill form.

Insulin is a hormone made in the pancreas that helps the body use glucose to create energy. In type 1 diabetes, the pancreas can no longer make insulin, so it needs to be taken regularly to control blood glucose levels.

Currently, insulin cannot be taken in pill form as it would be quickly broken down by digestive enzymes in the stomach and so prevented from reaching the bloodstream where it is needed.

To overcome this problem, the researchers propose adding a chemical tag composed of a small fragment of protein known as a peptide that would allow the drug to enter the bloodstream through the intestines.

To test the peptide’s ability to move through the body, the team fed it to mice and then charted its progress from the animals’ intestines, into the bloodstream and ultimately into their organs using a PET scan.

Now that they have proven that the tag can successfully enter the bloodstream after being administered orally, the team plan to determine whether the tag can do the same thing when attached to a selection of drugs, including insulin.

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“Because they are relatively small molecules, you can chemically attach them to drugs, or other molecules of interest, and use them to deliver those drugs orally,” said lead researcher Prof Min Xue, of the University of California, Riverside’s chemistry department.

“Quite compelling preliminary results make us think we can push this further.

“This discovery could lift a burden on people who are already burdened with illness.”

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