An insulin pill currently being developed at the University of California Santa Barbara could provide an alternative to insulin injections.
The pill, which is delivered orally, could offer several benefits. Not only would it be more comfortable than injection – thereby avoiding side effects such as lumpy skin, too – it could also be more effective.
Insulin pills: more comfortable and more effective?
“With diabetes, there’s a tremendous need for oral delivery,” said Samir Mitragotri, a professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at UC Santa Barbara. “People take insulin several times a day and delivery by needles is a big challenge.”
Mitragotri also explained how orally-delivered insulin could be more effective, as it is more direct than the route taken by injected insulin.
“When you deliver insulin by injections, it goes first through the peripheral bloodstream and then to the blood circulation in the liver,” Mitragotri explained.
The insulin pill is not to be confused with medication that enhances the body’s natural insulin production. These tablets deliver an external dose of insulin, much like an injectio, but in a more comfortable and potentially effective form.
The researchers are optimistic about the potential of their oral delivery system, with Mitragotri describing it as “the first essential step in showing that these patches can deliver insulin.” However, the research is still at a fairly preliminary stage. If it is successful, the insulin pills will need to go through rigorous testing before it is released on the market.
Why don’t we have insulin pills already?
Previous attempts to produce orally-delivered insulin have struggled because the proteins in the pill have been broken down by stomach acids. It’s difficult to get the medication past the proteolytic environment of the stomach and intestine without the protein being destroyed. These pills are enteric-coated capsules that contain insulin-loaded mucoadhesive polymer patches. Tests show that the pills can survive stomach acids, and then make its way to the small intestine. Once it gets there, it releases the insulin-loaded patches, which adhere to the intestinal wall. Using a permeation enhancer, the insulin can then pass through into the blood.
The researchers believe their technique may also be applicable to other forms of therapy. Growth hormones, antibodies and vaccines that are currently injected could all be made painless and more effective using the system.
“We can deliver many proteins that are currently injected,” explained Mitragotri.
The project is being funded by the National Institutes of Health.

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