According to the American Diabetes Association, there are around 25.8 million adults and children in the US with diabetes. Many of these individuals endure daily insulin shots in order to regulate their levels of the hormone. But researchers say they may have found a way to create a long-sought after insulin pill.

This is according to a study published in the journal Biomacromolecules.

The team of study researchers, led by Sanyog Jain of the National Institute of Pharmaceutical Education and Research in India, say the insulin pill could erase the “ouch” factor that patients experience from daily insulin shots, and also ensure that patients who are afraid of needles take their medication when required.

The investigators say that around 25% of diabetics in the US need some form of insulin therapy to manage their condition.

Researchers have been working toward developing an insulin pill for many years, but the investigators say this work is challenging.

They explain that with an insulin pill, the digestive enzymes in the body that break down food also break down insulin before it has the chance to work. Additionally, they note that the gut finds it hard to absorb the insulin, meaning the insulin does not easily reach the bloodstream.

But the researchers conducted a rat study in an attempt to resolve these issues.

The investigators packaged insulin in small fat sacs called liposomes – a “bubble” made out of the same material as cell membranes. Liposomes are already used for other treatments, including some anticancer drugs.

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Researchers found that insulin pills reduced blood glucose levels in rats almost as much as insulin injections, giving hope that diabetics may one day be able to pop a pill rather than inject insulin.

The liposomes were then coated in layers of protective molecules called polyelectrolytes, changing the liposomes into “layeromes.” This protects the insulin from digestive enzymes.

To assist these layeromes in getting through to the bloodstream, the researchers attached folic acid to them. Folic acid, also known as vitamin B9, is a water-soluble compound that the researchers say is known to help carry liposomes through the intestinal wall and into the bloodstream.

The researchers then tested the layersomes on a group of diabetic rats and compared the results with standard insulin injections.

Results revealed that the pill reduced the rats’ blood glucose levels almost as much as the insulin injections. Furthermore, the effects of the layersomes lasted longer.

There are other forms of insulin delivery available that avoid injections. Earlier this year, Medical News Today reported on a study suggesting that compared with injections, insulin pumps are more effective for insulin delivery in children.

However, insulin pumps – which involve having a catheter placed under the skin to deliver short doses of insulin around the clock – are still invasive, which is why insulin pills continue to be sought after.

The investigators say that overall, their proposed strategy in this study is “expected to contribute significantly in the field of designing ligand-anchored, polyelectrolyte-based stable systems in drug delivery.”