Lettuce as a potential cure for diabetes? I told you I was looking into it. My instinct said ‘BS’ (and that doesn’t stand for ‘blood sugar’). I queried a few experts in the last few days, and it looks like I wasn’t too far off.
So the headlines were all abuzz last week with (yet another) breakthrough that “may have finally unlocked the code to wipe diabetes completely off the map.”
Dr. Henry Daniell and his team of 20 bio-medical researchers have worked for five years, experimenting with genetically modified lettuce grown in a lab at the University of Central Florida. The leaves are placed in a machine and injected with the human gene for insulin, then powdered and fed to mice. After eight weeks, the treated mice were producing normal levels of insulin.
So, what about it? Good for humans, too? Any time in this century, or this millennium??
“Lettuce is a cute gimmick… (but) I don’t see it as any kind of breakthrough,” Dr. Jay Skyler tells me. He is director of academic programs at the Diabetes Research Institute in Miami, and Study Chairman for the nationwide Type 1 Diabetes TrialNet project.
He explains that Daniell’s study hasn’t proved anything new about the treatment or prevention of diabetes. It’s only proven that there are ever-more biological sources of insulin, including tobacco and carrots.
Research back in the late ’80s and early ’90s already showed that orally fed insulin will alter the immune attack of insulin-producing cells in mice.
“The problem is the concept of using oral insulin. It doesn’t work to lower glucose. It works to change the immune system so it won’t destroy islet cells in rodents. But studies with humans have been fundamentally inconclusive so far,” Skyler says.
Because these are prevention studies, they have to identify a group of very high-risk people and then follow them for 5 years or more to see if the disease onset is really delayed. A very drawn-out process, as you can imagine.
Essentially what Daniell is proposing is not far from Denise Faustman’s research — altering the immune system to prevent the attack on the pancreas. But even she has delayed her human trials because the complicated methodology for lab analysis of results isn’t quite ready yet, according to Skyler.
So when SHOULD we actually get excited about all these potential breakthroughs?
“If something shows potential promise without potential harm, I think it’s worth pursuing,” Skyler says. “(Denise Faustman) has gotten a lot of PR but not a lot of data. Unfortunately that’s often the case… My fundamental rule of thumb is that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”
Right. Thanks for the reality check, Dr. S.