Diabetes in the News – the Perils of Being a Woman and “Smart Insulin” Trials

Animals may have been harmed in the makings of this research.
Animals may have been harmed in the makings of this research.

It’s difficult to avoid news about diabetes, as there are regular articles in the press – from the doom and gloom predictions about burdens on the healthcare system to simplistic pieces about “cures”, diabetes makes the news on a regular basis.

Two news items caught my eye recently: one which talked about the greater risks faced by women with type 1 diabetes, and one about “smart insulin”.

As an optimist by nature, I prefer to ignore the first and concentrate on the second and its potential; however, if you are interested – there’s a good discussion of it on the NHS news website, which separates the attention-grabbing headlines from the facts and discusses the origins of the research.

[In short, the NHS reckons the Daily Telegraph’s coverage of the study which was carried out by the Universities of Queensland and other universities in Australia, the Netherlands, the UK and the US, expressed the results in way that could be misleading. Saying for example that “female patients are twice as likely to die from heart disease than men with [type 1 diabetes]” was too simplistic an explanation because men do not generally live as long as women.

The researchers did not directly compare rates of death in men and women – they compared risk of death over a given period in women with type 1 diabetes, compared to that of women in the general population and then made the equivalent comparison with men.]

The other piece of news was about the development of “smart insulin”: i.e. an insulin which can respond to blood sugar levels directly and bring them under control. Type 1 diabetics and some people with type 2 diabetes take insulin to control blood sugar levels, but it can be tricky to work out how much to take, as there are many different things that have an impact on your blood sugar levels – from doing exercise, to missing a meal, from feeling ill to feeling stressed, under or over estimating the number of carbohydrates in a meal, drinking alcohol, hormonal fluctuations in the lead-up to getting your period (women of menstruating age) and more.

The smart insulin study was carried out by researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US, funded by donations from the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust and the Tayebati Family Foundation.

An animal study on mice found that “smart insulin” containing a molecular switch could directly respond to blood glucose levels (high levels) and bring them under control for as long as 13 hours after the initial injection. The study involved giving mice with type 1 diabetes a sugary drink. The “smart insulin” was a modified insulin containing two small chemical molecules that bind to insulin, one of which was a glucose sensor. Having taken sugary solutions, the mice with diabetes who had been given the modified insulin were able to rapidly normalise blood glucose levels – in a similar way to healthy, non-diabetic mice.

The NHS news site called the results “promising”, but pointed out that the research was in its very early stages and that it had been carried out on mice. Years of research and clinical trials would be needed – developing the treatment for humans, seeing if it was safe for humans, carrying out research on large numbers of people – before “smart insulin” could be used by humans. Promising research into the treatment of mice with diabetes does not equate to effective results for human beings.

In short, a simple, take-home message is: don’t wait out in the hope of the appearance of smart insulin any time soon, and in the meantime those with type 1 and type 2 diabetes (male OR female) should look to controlling their diabetes as best they can.

 

You can read about research and low-carbohydrate diets and their effect on health and reducing blood glucose levels here. And if low-carbohydrate dieting is something you want to explore, please see The Diabetes Diet.

 

 

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