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Insulin from Plants May Benefit Diabetics

Capsules of insulin produced in genetically modified plants could restore the body’s ability to produce insulin and help insulin-dependent (type 1) diabetes patients, according to biomedical researchers from the University of Central Florida.

The research team initially used genetically engineered tobacco plants with the insulin gene and then administered freeze-dried plant cells to diabetic mice as a powder for eight weeks. Results showed that the diabetic mice had normal blood and urine sugar levels, and that their cells were producing normal levels of insulin at the end of the study.

Professor Henry Daniell, who led the research team, has since proposed using lettuce instead of tobacco for producing the insulin because lettuce can be produced cheaply and to avoid the negative stigma associated with tobacco. Daniell and his team say that results of their study indicate that insulin capsules could someday be used to prevent diabetes before symptoms appear and treat the disease in later stages.

Insulin is typically given through shots for the hormone to go straight into the bloodstream. In the researchers’ proposed method, plant cell walls made of cellulose initially prevent insulin from degrading.When the plant cells that contain insulin reach the intestine, cell walls will slowly be broken down by bacteria living in it, gradually releasing insulin into the bloodstream.

Insulin produced from lettuce would be delivered as powder in capsules to patients because the dosage must be controlled carefully. If successful in their trials with people, the impact of the research could affect millions of diabetics worldwide and would greatly reduce the cost of treatment.

The United States’ National Institutes of Health provided $2 million to fund the study. Findings of the study were reported in the journal Plant Biotechnology.

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