Over the past few years, scientists have been intensely studying the flora (a.k.a. bacteria) of the human intestine to unlock the secrets it may hold in influencing our health.
Scientists at Cornell University in New York have discovered a protein secreted by a particular form of bacteria which can shift control of insulin from the pancreas to the upper intestine. The pancreas is the organ which controls blood glucose levels in healthy individuals.
If a person has type 1 diabetes, their pancreas is unable to produce insulin. In type 2 diabetes, the person’s cells are unable to utilize insulin correctly. Yet proper insulin control is crucial to health, as the hormone regulates how cells utilize blood sugar (glucose) to produce energy. If insulin is not produced or not utilized correctly, blood sugar remains in the bloodstream, creating a host of side effects.
The Cornell research team, led by Professor John March, engineered a strain of Lactobacillus, a bacteria found in the human gut, to secrete a hormone that triggers the release of insulin in response to food entering the digestive tract.
The team studied blood glucose levels in two sets of rats. One set received a pill form of the live bacteria, which was administered for a 90 day period. The other group of rats received a placebo. The scientists found that the bodies of diabetic rats which had received the treatment had shifted control of blood sugar levels from the pancreas to the upper intestine. They also found that the diabetic rats’ blood glucose levels were up to 30 percent lower than rats which did not receive the pill. But the scientists also discovered that the cells in the upper intestine of the diabetic rats converted into cells which mimicked pancreatic cells – the same cells which secrete insulin in non-diabetics.
Interestingly, in those rats who were not diabetic, no change occurred in blood glucose levels. “If the rat is managing its glucose, it doesn’t need more insulin,”, Professor March said.
It’s important to note that the probiotic used in the research is different from the probiotic dairy products widely available. The next step is to test higher doses of the medicine to establish if the probiotic could reverse diabetes altogether.
Professor March remarked, “If it works really well in people, it could be that they just take a pill and wouldn’t have to do anything else to control their diabetes. It is likely though that it will be used in conjunction with some other treatment.”
The study was published in the journal Diabetes.