A new way to treat but not manage diabetes is on its way
To treat diabetes directly, rather than manage its symptoms, doctors need a way to get drugs to cells that produce insulin. The key, Stanford researchers report, may be those cells’ affinity for zinc.
An insulin injection can manage diabetes symptoms, but actually curing the disease would mean healing cells in the pancreas that produce insulin, a hormone that regulates the amount of sugar in blood.
One promising approach may be to stimulate the regeneration of those cells with drugs. But there’s a major obstacle: The growth triggered by the drug is willy-nilly, affecting tissues not just in the pancreas but throughout the body.
Now, a team of Stanford University endocrinologists and chemists has taken a step toward targeting the right cells more precisely, using a property that researchers have long known about but never exploited for treatment: Beta cells, the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas, have a particularly strong taste for zinc.
In a study published online Dec. 6 in Cell Chemical Biology, Stanford researchers used that fact to selectively deliver a drug to beta cells. Justin Annes, MD, PhD, assistant professor of medicine, is the senior author. Graduate student Timothy Horton is the lead author.
The method hasn’t been optimized yet, and it isn’t anywhere near ready for clinical use. “We’re at the earliest stages,” Annes said. But in a field where the main options are insulin injections and insulin pumps, which continuously deliver the hormone through a catheter, it could pave the way to more appealing alternatives.
Diabetes is a disease in which the body can’t produce enough insulin to maintain normal blood sugar levels. For years, Annes’ goal has been to develop a medication that would promote the regeneration of insulin-producing beta cells. Although some researchers deemed that impossible, Annes and his colleagues recently succeeded in creating specific molecules that make beta cells divide and produce more beta cells.