Insulin in a Tab? Scientists in Canada Are a Step Closer

An insulin pen.

An insulin pen.
Photo: Sajjad Hussain/AFP (Getty Images)

A team of scientists in Canada say they’re a major step closer to creating an easy-to-take oral insulin tablet. In new researchthey found that rats dosed with their dissolvable tablet seem to absorb the insulin the same way they do when given a typical insulin shot. Should their work pay off, it could lead to a more cost-effective treatment, or at least one that’s less painful for many diabetics.

It’s been more than a century since insulin was first isolated and later synthesized as a medication for people who need it to manage their blood sugar (people with type 1 diabetes need to take it their entire lives, since they cannot produce the hormone on their own, while many with type 2 will need it as their illness progresses). In all at that time, the basic method of insulin delivery via direct injection has not changed. There are now auto-injectable pens that can ease this process, but these formulations still cause some discomfort, and they’re often more expensive than other versions of insulin.

One of the most sought-after goals in diabetes medicine is a more convenient form of insulin, such as one delivered orally. So far, these efforts haven’t led to successfulin large part because our stomach acids destroy ingested insulin before it reaches the liver, which is where it needs to go to perform its magic. But researchers at the University of British Columbia now believe that they’re closer than that ever in finding a solution that works.

Their version isn’t a swallowable pill but rather a tablet that’s placed between the gums and cheek. As the tablet dissolves, the relatively thin membrane along that area of ​​the mouth should ideally allow the insulin to sidestep the stomach entirely and reach the liver mostly intact. And in their latest experiments with rats, the experimental delivery method appears to be working as intended. The team’s most recent findings on their tablet were published in June in the journal Scientific Reports.

“Even after two hours of delivery, we did not find any insulin in the stomachs of the rats we tested. It was all in the liver and this is the ideal target for insulin—it’s really what we wanted to see,” said lead author and PhD candidate Yigong Guo in a statement from the university.

There are other oral formulations of insulin in development, including some that have recently reached clinical trials in humans. But given that most experimental treatments ultimately fail, it’s important to have as many different options on the table to find one that can make it to the finish line. Nowadays, there are many forms of insulin that are suited to people’s varying needs, such as versions that can be quickly absorbed in as little as half an hour. And the UBC team believes that their formulation will be the equivalent of a rapid-acting insulin shot, which could make it stand out over other slower-absorbing tablets in development.

It will take more data and funding for the UBC team’s insulin product to reach clinical trials and, from there, the public. But should their version or others make it, it would be a boon for the many people living with diabetes today.

“These exciting results show that we are on the right track in developing an insulin formulation that will no longer need to be injected before every meal, improving the quality of life, as well as mental health, of more than nine million type 1 diabetics around the world,” said Anubhav Pratap-Singh, the project’s lead researcher and professor at UBC’s faculty of land and food systems.

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