Scientists in California have developed a new approach to treating diabetes which might be able to reverse the disease and not just treat the symptoms.
The World Health Organization estimates that more than one-third of a billion people worldwide have diabetes. The most common form of the disease, type 2 diabetes, is on the rise. It's usually the result of excess weight and lack of physical exercise.
The pancreas doesn't produce enough insulin, which regulates sugar in the blood. The excess sugar can affect the heart and blood vessels, eyes, and other organs.
Treatment includes losing weight and exercising. Some patients take insulin or other medicines.
At the California biotechnology company Genentech, researchers have been investigating a growth factor protein called FGF21, which is involved in controlling blood sugar.
Junichiro Sonoda says previous studies have shown that when FGF21 is injected into laboratory mice and monkeys, it has a variety of beneficial effects. "Well, the animals lose weight, and cholesterol, which increases cardiovascular risk, now goes down. And there's a good cholesterol called HDL, which level goes up with FGF21 treatment."
Efforts to get the same effect in humans have been stymied by the fact that the effect lasts only a few hours. "So that means, to get the beneficial effect you have to inject a lot of it and many times during the day."
So the Japanese-born researcher and his colleagues tried a different approach. They developed antibodies that mimic FGF21 by attaching to the same receptors in the pancreas and elsewhere, and they tested it on mice.
"The blood glucose level got normalized. And we kept monitoring blood glucose after a single injection of this antibody, and it took almost 40 days for the blood glucose level to come back to a 'normal' diabetic level," Sonoda said.
That kind of long-lasting effect is one of the things that drug developers look for. "This could become the very first class of drug that could reverse the disease instead of just treat the symptoms of disease. That would be a huge benefit for patients."
Junichiro Sonoda says further work is needed on this potential antibody-based treatment for diabetes before moving on to human testing. A paper describing the research is published in Science Translational Medicine.