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Can A Common Germ Cure Diabetes?

One of the most common healthy bacteria in the gut could be a key to curing diabetes, according to new animal research that used an engineered form of the probiotic to create new insulin-creating cells in the intestine.

"Bacteria" definitely feels like a dirty word. E. coli strains trigger food poisoning and Streptococcus infections cause sore throats, but the truth is that less than 1% of bacteria types are actually harmful. In fact, many forms of bacteria are beneficial to the human body. They're called probiotics.

Lauded for their digestive benefits, probiotics are one of the most popular natural supplements in the US,1 but you can also find them in common foods. Yogurt, cheese, and even chocolate contain Lactobacillus gasseri, one of the most common probiotics. Tips for eating good bacteria.

Lactobacillus has been known to treat diarrhea and prevent the growth of harmful bacteria in the gut. Now though, scientists are beginning to discover that Lactobacillus could be a key to doing much more than just curing an upset stomach—like curing diabetes.

Engineered Lactobacillus

In a new study published by Diabetes,2 a team of researchers at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, used a specially-engineered strain of Lactobacillus on diabetic rats. The probiotic released a hormone called Glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1), which stimulates the secretion of insulin.

The researchers  fed the probiotic to the rats, keeping an eye on their blood glucose levels. After 90 days, the diabetic rats' blood glucose levels were significantly reduced by as much as 30%, compared to the rats that didn't receive the probiotic.

The researchers also discovered something startling.The cells in the upper intestine had reprogrammed themselves to function like beta cells, which are the cells that produce insulin for the body. These cells functioned like a surrogate pancreas, creating insulin whenever it was needed naturally.

Type 2 diabetes is a progressive disease that causes insufficient or defective beta cells in the pancreas, which leads to the body not getting enough insulin. Insulin is essential, as it suppresses rises in blood glucose and aids the body in utilizes glucose as fuel for the body. This is one of the reasons people with diabetes so commonly suffer from hyperglycemia, or high blood glucose levels, which can lead to dangerous complications, like heart attack and stroke.

In the new study, the diabetic rats created so many of these new, multifunctional cells that they gained an insulin-creating capacity around 25% to 33% equal to that of a nondiabetic rat. And since the reprogrammed cells didn't appear to interfere with the normal cells, this novel method could be just as safe as it is effective.

This is an exciting animal study that shows great promise.  If it can be replicated in humans, it will have a great benefit as one additional treatment method for diabetes to reduce blood glucose levels and subsequent long-term complications.

Using Bacteria to Cure Diabetes

For years, doctors have been aware of the possible benefits of using manipulated bacteria to help treat diabetes.3 In 2008, the same researchers even were able to produce similar results with human intestinal cells in vitro.4 So is a new medicine on the way?

A new form of medication could come into fruition within a couple of years, according to the lead author of the study John C. March, PhD, MS, an associate professor and director of graduate studies at Cornell University. Dr. March is currently working with the pharmaceutical company BioPancreate Inc. to turn this technology into a legitimate treatment.

The company is still working through the preclinical process and hopes to be able to file an Investigational New Drug (IND) application in the second quarter of this year, according to Alexander Lindström, who is the chief financial officer of Cortendo AB, which now owns BioPancreate Inc.

Gaining an IND application from the Federal Drug Administration would kickstart human testing within the year. If a new drug does eventually come from this research, it could have a major impact on the way doctors treat people with diabetes, Dr. March said.

Updated on: April 13, 2015
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