A generic blood pressure medicine healed beta cells, curing diabetes in mice. Scientists are now recruiting for a human study to see if it works in people. It might heal both Type 1 and Type 2.
The drug is called verapamil. It costs $4 a month at Walmart. It has been used for high blood pressure, migraine headaches, and irregular heartbeats for decades, but it turns out to have a side effect. It lowers levels of a protein called TXNIP.
TXNIP (stands for “thioredoxin interacting protein”) inhibits the antioxidant thioredoxin and suppresses tumors. But too-high levels of the substance in insulin-producing beta cells leads to their destruction. Apparently verapamil lowers the level of TXNIP.
According to Medical News Today, “In mice with established diabetes and blood sugars over 300 mg/dl [very high], verapamil ‘eradicated’ the disease.”
Researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), led by Dr. Anath Shalev, have been working on this research for over ten years. They studied beta cells in test tubes to find what made them die. They eventually found excess TXNIP killed the cells. Then they tried a series of chemicals on the cells to look for one that lowered TXNIP.
This is the way science was done in the old days, more driven by results than profit. These days, most researchers would have tried to create a new molecule from scratch to block TXNIP. This would be a fabulously expensive process. Instead, Shalev’s team tested existing molecules to find one that worked.
Now, the UAB researchers have received a three-year, $2.1 million grant from JDRF to conduct a clinical trial in 2015 in humans. JDRF focuses on Type 1 (formerly called juvenile-onset) diabetes.
JDRF sponsorship may be why the study is enrolling only newly diagnosed people with Type 1. But it seems like the treatment might be equally effective or more effective in Type 2.
We always hear that Type 2 diabetes is a result of insulin resistance. But people’s blood sugar doesn’t rise to diabetic levels until large numbers of beta cells die off. The UAB research indicates that it may be high glucose levels that lead to high TXNIP levels, which then kill the beta cells and bring on diabetes.
If we could bring the beta cells back, the diabetes would go away. Dr. Shalev told Medscape that, “When we started treating [mice] with verapamil, blood sugars normalized, and this was due to the reappearance and normalization of insulin-producing beta cells.”
What causes the high glucose levels in the first place? Shalev’s team thinks that in Type 2, it may be occasional high-sugar or very-high-calorie meals that temporarily raise glucose. These high post-meal readings could be enough to start the TXNIP process in people who are sensitive to it. They’re not sure, but it’s certainly a hopeful line to investigate.
I like this therapy because it is simple. More complicated high-tech therapies have been at best partially effective in autoimmune diseases such as Type 1 diabetes. We just don’t understand the immune system well enough. In contrast, UAB is looking at a much simpler, downstream place to stop the beta-cell destruction. If it works, it could be more like a cure than a chronic treatment.
It probably won’t be a quick cure though. Beta cells will need time to regrow, probably years. Dr. Shalev told Medscape, “We’re not expecting any miracles with this study, since we will be treating patients for only one year and we know that for any intervention to [regenerate beta cells] after such a large number of beta cells have died will take a long time.”
So there is some new hope for medical treatment for diabetes of all types. The body can heal itself given the right support. Self-management is crucial now and for the foreseeable future, but there may be a cure coming.
If you’re interested in being enrolled in the study, contact Kentress Davison at (205) 934-4112.