April 23, 2008 -- The elusive insulin pill appears to have received a shot
in the arm.
Whispers of an insulin pill have been around for years, but efforts to
develop one have been hampered by the body's own digestive process. The stomach
acids needed to break down foods also destroy the hormone insulin. Research
groups worldwide have been experimenting with ways around this obstacle;
however, an ideal material for safe, effective delivery by mouth has remained
out of reach.
Now, researchers in Texas say a novel gel-like material could help speed up
the widely anticipated arrival of oral insulin, renewing hopes for the millions
of Americas with diabetes who must have daily insulin shots to tame their
In the April 14 issue of Biomacromolecules, researchers report on a
promising new delivery system candidate in the form of a gel-like substance
called a polymer hydrogel, which responds to changes in pH levels between the
stomach and small intestine. The gel contains a type of sticky plant molecule
called wheat germ agglutinin (WGA).
For the experiment, Kristy Wood, PhD, and colleagues at the University of
Texas at Austin loaded insulin onto polymer hydrogel microparticles. Their
laboratory tests showed that the hydrogel carriers safely usher insulin into
the stomach, where they expand to protect the drug from the harsh acidic
environment. When the delivery pods reach the less acidic small intestine the
gel shrinks and releases the insulin to be absorbed.
The study authors say their research demonstrates that the WGA technique
allows for the quick release of insulin in the small intestines and improves
the duration of insulin absorption. "In addition, results of this
experiment show that the change in pH between the stomach and the small
intestine can be used as a physiologic trigger to release insulin from the
hydrogel microparticles," they write in the journal article.
The authors concluded that the method "shows great promise as an oral
insulin delivery system." However, it is important to note that these
experiments were performed in a laboratory dish. It could be many years before
the technique is perfected and approved for use in humans.
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