There are currently around 400,000 people in the UK living with type I diabetes. In order to stay healthy, they require daily injections of insulin for the rest of their lives.


Now, a method of chemically tagging drugs developed by a team at the University of California, Riverside could mean they will soon be able to take their life-saving medication in pill form.

Insulin is a hormone made in the pancreas that helps the body use glucose to create energy. In type 1 diabetes, the pancreas can no longer make insulin, so it needs to be taken regularly to control blood glucose levels.

Currently, insulin cannot be taken in pill form as it would be quickly broken down by digestive enzymes in the stomach and so prevented from reaching the bloodstream where it is needed.

To overcome this problem, the researchers propose adding a chemical tag composed of a small fragment of protein known as a peptide that would allow the drug to enter the bloodstream through the intestines.

To test the peptide’s ability to move through the body, the team fed it to mice and then charted its progress from the animals’ intestines, into the bloodstream and ultimately into their organs using a PET scan.

Now that they have proven that the tag can successfully enter the bloodstream after being administered orally, the team plan to determine whether the tag can do the same thing when attached to a selection of drugs, including insulin.

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“Because they are relatively small molecules, you can chemically attach them to drugs, or other molecules of interest, and use them to deliver those drugs orally,” said lead researcher Prof Min Xue, of the University of California, Riverside’s chemistry department.

“Quite compelling preliminary results make us think we can push this further.

“This discovery could lift a burden on people who are already burdened with illness.”

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Jason Goodyer
Jason GoodyerCommissioning editor, BBC Science Focus

Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Instant Genius Podcast.