On Tuesday 3 February, news stories reported that a new ‘breakthrough probiotic pill’ could ‘rewire’ the body and ‘cure’ both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes. The stories focused on research from Cornell University in the United States and published in thejournal Diabetes. But is there any truth behind these claims?
The research highlighted will not provide an immediate cure for people living with Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes, but is very interesting nevertheless. The study focused on rats, and at this stage it is too early to say if the probiotic used would have the same benefits in humans, or if it could become a routine treatment for diabetes in humans. Years of further research using animal models and clinical trials in humans will be needed before we will know if this treatment could benefit people living with diabetes.It is especially important to note that the ‘probiotic pill’ used in the study is different to the probiotic dairy products that are already widely available.
The pill included a strain of live bacteria that is commonly found in the human gut, but which had been genetically engineered to produce the hormone GLP-1.GLP-1 and similar drugs trigger the release of insulin and block the release of glucagon from the pancreas, helping to reduce blood glucose levels. They are already used for the treatment of Type 2 diabetes. When researchers in this study gave GLP-1 producing bacteria to rats with diabetes, GLP-1 was released into the gut and ‘reprogrammed’ some of the gut cells, causing them to become insulin-producing cells. The researchers found that the reprogrammed gut cells released up to a third of the insulin produced by a rat without diabetes, helping the rats to manage their blood glucose levels.
Without further research, we do not know if this approach could potentially replace or work in combination with existing therapies for people living with diabetes. It is important to note that, in people with Type 1 diabetes, insulin-producing cells in the pancreas are targeted and destroyed by an immune attack. If this approach were used to engineer new insulin-producing gut cells in people with Type 1, these cells could also be targeted by the immune system – so this would need to be monitored closely. Until further research has been completed, the best way to manage diabetes is by taking existing medications prescribed by your doctor, and maintaining a healthy weight by following a healthy balanced diet and taking regular exercise.