When it comes to breakthrough drugs, 2020 was of course all about Operation Warp Speed, the U.S. government-backed (your tax dollars) effort to accelerate the development of a COVID-19 vaccine. But flying under the radar of media headlines were very exciting developments in diabetes research. Let’s take a look at some of these potential breakthrough treatments.
Regeneration of Pancreatic Beta Cells
There’s a common misconception that the human body is constantly regenerating itself. To a certain extent that’s very true. Your skin cells and immune cells regenerate in just days.
But when it comes to organs, the liver is the only one that can regenerate. In fact, not always, but it’s theoretically possible that if you have to have even up to 75% of your liver removed, as long as there are no blood clotting factors, the liver can entirely regenerate.
But the same can’t be said about the pancreas. It’s in the pancreas that beta cells reside. These cells are what secrete the blood-glucose controlling hormone, insulin. People with type 1 diabetes (which accounts for only 5% of total diabetes diagnoses) are unable to produce insulin on their own. Those with advanced type 2 diabetes may also be dependent on exogenous insulin.
The holy grail of diabetes treatment then is the regeneration of beta cells. And researchers may have just figured out how to accomplish this. Australian researchers have discovered a way to turn off a biological process switch called methylation in two genes that are responsible for beta cell function.
Methylation isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s critical for immune function, detoxification and so much more. But in essence, methylation functions as an off switch. What the Australian researchers figured out was how to demethylate these two genes. This, in theory, could one day result in a treatment that flips the switch to the on position in insulin-producing beta cells.
Improving Diabetes By Improving Gut-Brain Communication
In October of last year, French researchers wrote an article describing the key to producing a hitherto elusive oral diabetes medication that’s both effective and free of side effects. Their findings, published in the appropriately-named journal, Gut, describe that the key to producing such a drug lies in improving the communication of the gut-brain axis (GBA).
Studies have shown that those with type 2 diabetes have an underfunctioning GBA.
Here’s why that is…
The research in Gut found that people with type 2 diabetes have 40% less an amount of a lipid molecule, 12-HETE. This fatty molecule is produced by beneficial bacteria in the large intestine. It’s role is to help break down glucose in the blood.
Because this molecule is less abundant in those with type 2 diabetes, the signal between the GBA to break down blood glucose is not well received. Researchers hope the discovery of the 12-HETE molecule will lead to a breakthrough diabetes treatment.
The Single Injection Cure?
For those trying to manage weight unsuccessfully after trying every diet, the miracle weight loss pill—that doesn’t cause horrendous side effects—remains a fantasy. And for those who have type 2 diabetes, if only there were a single injection that could restore blood sugar levels for weeks if not months.
Researchers may be a step closer to achieving just that. A study published in September of last year by University of Washington researchers showed that by injecting a certain protein, fibroblast growth factor 1, in experimental rats, it triggered cellular and molecular responses in the hypothalamus, the gland on the underside of the brain that, among other functions, controls blood sugar and appetite.
Moreover, the protein injected in the rats was found to repair neurons damaged by diabetes.
Earlier that same month, other researchers discovered that another protein, CNOT3, is the catalyst for dysfunctional beta cells.
These findings offer hope—not just from a standpoint of managing blood glucose on a daily basis—that diabetes remission may be a viable, safe and fairly easy reality in the near future.
If only there was an Operation Warp Speed to accelerate these recent developments into viable treatments for the approximately 30 million people living with diabetes, who are more vulnerable to developing severe COVID symptoms. Nonetheless, the research is promising and hopefully the diabetes community won’t have to wait several years for a miracle treatment to come to market.