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Researchers Find Molecule That Mimics Insulin Action in Diabetics

By Thomas H. Maugh II
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- Pharmaceutical researchers have discovered the first simple molecule that, given by mouth, can mimic the action of insulin in diabetics, a discovery that could eventually free millions of people from the burden of injecting insulin two or more times per day.

Isolated from a fungus growing on the leaves of a plant collected outside Kinshasha, Republic of the Congo, the chemical controls blood glucose levels in mice specially bred to develop diabetes, the team reports in Friday’s Science. Researchers have high hopes that it, or a closely related chemical, will do the same thing in humans.

Insulin helps cells throughout the body use glucose for energy and store it for future use, but it produces no effects if taken orally because it is a protein that is broken down in the stomach.

An estimated 1 million Americans have Type 1, or insulin-dependent, diabetes and must take the hormone every day. Many of the 15 million Americans with Type 2 diabetes must also inject insulin, as do many of the 175 million diabetics worldwide.

If the new compound is shown to work as well in humans as it does in mice, “The potential is enormous,” said Dr. Arthur Rubenstein of Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.

“Conceptually, the idea that a simple molecule can replace insulin is dramatically important,” said Dr. Gerald Bernstein of the Beth Israel Medical Center in New York, president of the American Diabetes Association. “This is a very exciting opportunity.”

Officials from Merck Research Laboratories, which discovered the new chemical, would not speculate on when the compound might be tested in humans. Although they observed no adverse effects in the mouse tests, Merck researchers will have to do more toxicological testing before it can be given to humans.

“The point is to demonstrate that this novel approach (to treating diabetes) works,” said endocrinologist Bei Zhang, leader of the Merck team.