Can This Drug Reverse Diabetes?

6 Nov

What a thought. A common drug, already on the market to treat a different disease, may be able to reverse the course of diabetes for millions of people.


In type 1 diabetes, beta cells in the pancreas are attacked by the immune system.

We all know the stats behind diabetes: it’s the 7th leading cause of death in the U.S. and contributes to heart disease, kidney disease, eye disease, neuropathy, and a host of other conditions. But researchers at the University of Alabama’s Comprehensive Diabetes Center will soon begin human trials to determine if a common drug prescribed for high blood pressure, verapamil, can stop the progression of diabetes and in some cases reverse it.

More than a decade of research

In 2002, Anath Shalev, M.D., a diabetes researcher at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, started investigating what genes in the human pancreas responded greatest to high levels of blood glucose. In type 1 and type 2 diabetes, certain beta cells in the pancreas – known as islet beta cells – are gradually lost to genetically programmed cell death, for reasons unknown. As these beta cells are lost, diabetes becomes much worse. Shalev’s research on islet beta cells revealed that a gene in these cells was producing a protein called TXNIP, which previous studies showed is overproduced in beta cells in the presence of high blood sugar. Too much TXNIP causes beta cell death and inhibits the body’s natural production of insulin.

For 12 years Shalev continued her research, eventually leaving the U of Wis to head the UAB’s Comprehensive Diabetes Center. Using cell cultures, mouse models, and pancreatic islet cells from humans, Shalev eventually showed that manipulating TXNIP could protect mice against diabetes or make it much worse.

In 2012, building on research from other teams, Shalev started testing verapamil on human islet beta cells. She discovered that the drug reduced TXNIP, and halted the death of beta cells. Shalev also discovered that mice which were fed verapamil in their drinking water actually reversed the course of their diabetes, and the drug protected other mice against diabetes. The following year, Shalev’s team discovered that high levels of TXNIP actually blocked insulin production in beta cells.

Clinical trials begin in 2015

In a recent press release Shalev stated that, “We have shown that verapamil can prevent diabetes and even reverse the disease in mouse models and reduce TXNIP in human islet beta cells, suggesting that it may have beneficial effects in humans as well. That is a proof-of-concept that, by lowering TXNIP, even in the context of the worst diabetes, we have beneficial effects. And all of this addresses the main underlying cause of the disease — beta cell loss.”

Clinical trials will begin soon to see if verapamil has the same effect on human type 1 diabetics as it does on mice. The three-year, $2.1 million trial will be conducted by the UAB Comprehensive Diabetes Center with funding from JDRF, the largest charitable supporter of type 1 diabetes research.

But Shalev expressed caution regarding the research results: “While in a best-case scenario, the patients would have an increase in beta cells to the point that they produce enough insulin and no longer require any insulin injections — thereby representing a total cure — this is extremely unlikely to happen in the current trial, given its short duration of only one year,” Shalev stated. But she also expressed optimism in regards to the research path. “Finally, we have reason to believe we are on the right track.”

This video simply explains what the UAB reserachers discovered and how dibetes effects beta cells in the pancreas.

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