A Canadian company called EnGene Inc. claims to have developed an innovative genetic approach to potentially overcoming diabetes. I’m using the term “overcoming” because what EnGene is working on is not a cure per se, but a pretty cool workaround.
Here’s the deal:
As you all know, insulin is produced in the human body by beta cells in the pancreas. In the case of Type 1 diabetes, the immune system’s T-cells destroy the beta cells and therefore the body no longer has the ability to produce insulin. Type 2s either can’t produce enough insulin or tissues in the body are unable to use insulin properly.
Researchers at Vancouver-based EnGene Inc. have come up with an interesting idea, which they call “mimicking natural insulin delivery.”
The human intestines contain billions of so-called K-cells, and according to EnGene’s web site:
These cells normally respond to sugar levels in the digestive tract after a meal by secreting GIP (glucose-dependent insulinotropic polypeptide) into the bloodstream in a pattern that parallels the secretion of insulin. GIP acts as an “early warning signal,” alerting the pancreas to the presence of food and the pending need to release insulin to enable glucose absorption.
In other words, the K-cells work somewhat similarly to the beta cells and complement their work. EnGene’s basic idea is to genetically alter K-cells so that they can take over the beta cells’ function of producing and delivering insulin. For more in-depth info on how this is done, there’s a great article in ScienceNews, based on an EnGene presentation at a biotech event in San Diego in June.
EnGene says they have successfully tested this in mice by comparing three groups: healthy mice with normal insulin production; mice whose beta cells had been destroyed; and mice whose beta cells were destroyed, but whose K-cells had been genetically altered to produce insulin.
Check this out:
All three groups were given oral glucose. As you can see, the diabetic mice (green line) start out immediately with elevated blood sugar, while the mice with engineered K-cells (yellow line) react like normal animals (white line).
“The treated mice producing insulin from their K-cells continued to be healthy for several months. The untreated diabetic mice survived no more than a week without insulin injections,” the company states.
(Yep, thanks for reminding us …)
What’s next, you wonder? They’re not ready for human trials just yet, but are moving on to testing in pigs, whose intestines are very similar to human intestines. The company hopes it will be able to begin human studies by 2010.
Of course, I’m not planning to throw out my insulin pump by that date. There are any number of promising new approaches that so far only work on mice. And even if they’re successful, it will take many years before the new treatments obtain FDA approval and become commercially available.
And in the case of EnGene, there’s more: since the human body constantly replaces K-cells, PWDs would have to receive a new dose of insulin-producing K-cells roughly every five months. Here’s the catch: EnGene currently sprays the K-cells directly into the gut lining using a modified endoscope (!), which I will NOT be subjecting myself to two or three times a year. According to the above-mentioned ScienceNews article, the company says it might also be possible for patients to ingest the K-cells in a drink or a pill. Now we’re talking.
So why am I writing about EnGene now? First, it’s exciting because it makes us hopeful for the future. I frequently hear from frustrated PWDs who are giving up hope that this disease one day will be cured. Some folks subscribe to the conspiracy theory that big pharma is thwarting the development of cures to protect their massive revenue streams from diabetes. I think there’s plenty of evidence that pharma and biotech are working hard to improve treatment and to find a cure. And let’s not forget this: whether EnGene or somebody else, whoever comes to market with a break-through therapy first (i.e. cure) will be rolling in dough.