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Study: Inhaler as Effective as Injections


WebMD Health News

Feb. 1, 2001 -- People with diabetes who must inject insulin throughout the day to keep their blood sugar levels in check may breathe a sigh of relief when they hear results of a new study.

Researchers say an inhaler device containing insulin in powder form is as effective as an insulin injection. That means people who need to take insulin before meals may soon be able to easily inhale it instead of giving themselves painful and inconvenient shots.

"This really represents the first practical way of avoiding the injections and getting insulin in[to the body,] and that's very important," says Jay S. Skyler, MD, author of the study that appears in the Feb. 3 issue of The Lancet.

Skyler expects being able to get your insulin from an inhaler instead of having to give yourself a shot will make many aspects of daily life easier for diabetics. Everyone in this study had type 1 diabetes, in which the body makes virtually no insulin on its own.

When the insulin powder is put into the inhaler, it is transformed into a cloud of vapor. The diabetic person then inhales once or twice and the insulin travels into the lungs. From there it passes quickly into the bloodstream.

Although the study can be considered good news, some researchers are concerned that the long-term consequences of inhaling insulin into your lungs are unknown, says David Bell, MD. Because insulin is a growth factor, there is a potential for it to cause changes or growths in the lungs.

But Skyler says his study found no changes in the lungs of anyone using the inhaled insulin and feels confident that the fear is groundless. He says some people have been on the inhaled insulin for as long as four years with no problems.

Still, Bell, of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, says another question is why inhaled insulin is even necessary, since insulin pens are available that make it much easier than ever before to inject insulin more quickly and less painfully than with a standard syringe. In fact, Bell says the most painful part of diabetes therapy is having to stick your finger several times a day to check your blood glucose levels.

And using the inhaler, which contains short-acting insulin, doesn't completely eliminate the need for the shots.

"People with type 1 diabetes still need long-acting insulin, so they have to take an injection of it before going to bed," Bell says.

Skyler says that although these things are true, he believes having the inhaled insulin available as an option may make some people who dislike the idea of needles feel a little better about having to use insulin therapy. Of the people in the study who were offered the inhaler instead of their before-meal injections, 82% liked it so much they chose to continue using it after the study had ended.

"If this gets people to take better care of their disease, I think that is really the important thing," Skyler says.

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