A new form of oral insulin, which may soon be tested in humans, can be taken as an alternative to syringes or insulin pumps.
Scientists have developed a way to deliver insulin orally, via a capsule or sugar-free chocolate, and have successfully tested it on animals.
This new insulin will be ready for human trials in 2025.
Around 61 million people in Europe suffer from diabetes and between 5 and 10% of them have type 1 diabetes, which means they need to take insulin every day to control their blood glucose levels.
Some people with the more common type 2 diabetes also need to take insulin. According to the International Diabetes Federation, the three most common ways to take insulin are with a syringe, an insulin pen, or an insulin pump.
Provide medicine to the liver
Researchers at the University of Sydney, in collaboration with the Arctic University of Norway, had previously discovered that it was possible to deliver medicines to the liver with nano-carriers.
“We were able to get a grant in Australia, to look at different methods of delivering those therapies to those cells within an aging population. And this involved the use of nanomedicines. So we started using quantum dots, which were actually incredibly interesting and amazing materials,” Dr Nicholas Hunt, senior lecturer at the University of Sydney, told Euronews Next.
Quantum dots are tiny semiconductor particles with dimensions on the order of a few nanometers.
“When we first used them, we saw that we could deliver drugs very efficiently. You could precisely control which part of the body they would go to. It had no off-target effects and was really targeted and effective,” she added.
The idea to create an oral form of insulin came after a geriatric doctor at a clinic where the researchers work expressed concern about hospitalized older adults increasing their risk of secondary infections as they needed insulin injections.
“Of course, it was just a concept then. And then the key step we took was to first verify that we could actually administer insulin, orally,” Hunt said.
The team had to develop a specialized polymer designed to navigate the stomach and be absorbed in the intestine, eventually reaching the liver.
They set out to design a polymer that would respond to a patient’s blood sugar levels, which they did by looking at the enzymes that break down long sugar molecules.
“If there’s a high amount of glucose in the blood, there’s a high amount of those enzymes, which then degrade the polymer and release the insulin,” Hunt said.
Then the nanomaterial can be eliminated quickly from the body.
“This way of taking insulin is more precise because it quickly delivers insulin to the areas of the body that need it most. When you take insulin with a syringe, it spreads throughout the body where it can cause unwanted side effects,” Peter McCourt of UiT – Arctic University of Norway said in a statement.
Plans for future clinical trials
This system was tested on mice, rats and baboons, and the team published its results in Nature Nanotechnology.
The baboons didn’t want to take a tablet, so the researchers tried sugar-free jelly beans and sugar-free chocolate, while the baboons preferred lab-created chocolate.
“When we did our study in baboons, we did it in a way that would mimic what would be done in the phase I clinical trial. So it’s the same insulin dosage that would be used, the same experimental paradigm,” Hunt said.
Attention is currently focused on manufacturing for the upcoming clinical trial with the hope of starting later this year.
Hunt says they hope to carry out further trials in 2026, which, if successful, could mean seeking approval from regulators no earlier than 2028.
“We’re hoping that a therapy that they can take orally and something that they can’t overdose on … could allow for better glucose control throughout the life cycle,” Hunt said, adding that ingestible insulin does not it needs to be refrigerated and was still convenient.