Some people who take a common type of type 2 diabetes medication, called exendin-4, can experience unpleasant side effects. Dr Bianca Plouffe wants to find a way of avoiding this by placing the drug in a protective barrier, which means it will only start working once inside insulin-producing beta cells. This could mean that a much lower dose of the drug would be needed to get the same benefit, reducing the risk of side effects.
Background to research
'GLP-1s’ are a type of medication used to treat people with type 2 diabetes. They help the body to produce more insulin and reduce the amount of glucose being produced by the liver. One drug in this family is called exendin-4. But for some people it can cause gastrointestinal side effects, like nausea and diarrhea. And the side effects become more likely as the dose of the drug is increased.
Typically, drugs work at the surface of cells. But the processes that trigger cells in the pancreas release more insulin happen inside these cells. So scientists have been exploring ways to get drugs to the right place – inside the cell – so they can have maximum effect.
Recently, a team at Columbia University in New York developed a way to encapsulate drugs into small fatty capsules, which break down and release the drug only once they’re inside cells. They’ve found that the drugs they’ve tested work better when they’re encapsulated.
Dr Plouffe will work with the research team in New York to encapsulate exendin-4 using their technique. So that she can fully understand how well the capsules work, she will also design empty capsules that don’t contain exendin-4, as well as capsules that don’t break down to release the drugs once they’re inside the cells.
Back in her lab at Queen’s University Belfast, Dr Plouffe will measure how good the capsules are at releasing the drug once they’re inside the beta cells. She’ll then test all of the different capsules she has made, to see if encapsulated exendin-4 can stimulate beta cells to produce insulin.
Potential benefit to people with diabetes
This research could open up new ways of making key type 2 diabetes drugs more effective at lower does, so that people with type 2 diabetes can benefit from them without the unpleasant side effects.