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one green planet

Imagine a world where insulin, the essential hormone for regulating blood sugar in diabetics, could be taken orally, and what’s more, it’s derived from lettuce! This might sound like science fiction, but it’s an exciting reality on the horizon, courtesy of scientists led by Henry Daniell from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Dental Medicine.

The researchers have ingeniously leveraged the rigidity of plant cell walls to create a promising plant-based insulin, which boasts the three naturally occurring peptides found in insulin. This innovative concoction can be ingested orally and opens a new chapter in diabetes treatment.

The secret to this breakthrough lies in the resilience of plant cell walls. They serve as sturdy shields, protecting insulin from digestive tract acids and enzymes until reaching the gut’s microbes, which then release the insulin. The hormone then proceeds via the gut-liver axis to do its job.

In mouse trials, the plant-based insulin demonstrated impressive results, managing to regulate blood sugar within just 15 minutes, matching the pace of naturally secreted insulin. Interestingly, mice treated with conventional insulin injections encountered hypoglycemia, a condition resulting from excessively low blood glucose levels.

Daniell explained, “Our orally administered insulin, derived from plants, mirrors natural insulin, thus minimizing hypoglycemia risks.” This offers a huge advantage over current treatments, like insulin pens, that often lead to hypoglycemia, or insulin pumps, which require expensive equipment.

The creation of this plant-based insulin involves a unique blend of agronomy and genetics. Essentially, a “gene gun” is used to embed human insulin genes into plant cell walls. As these genes become a part of the plant’s genome, over generations, seeds maintaining the blueprint are selectively bred, resulting in all grown plants being potential insulin providers.

Moreover, the lettuce, now insulin-rich, can be freeze-dried, ground, and prepared for oral delivery, offering a more user-friendly alternative to injections.

Daniell and his team see massive potential in this plant-based approach. Conventional methods of producing insulin involve growing the hormone in bacteria or yeast cells, necessitating controlled lab conditions and cold storage for transportation – both costly and logistically complex. In contrast, the lettuce-based insulin offers significant cost and logistics advantages, since it is shelf-stable.

Although this innovative treatment is still in the early stages, the team is optimistic about advancing to larger trials. The hope is to provide a superior, affordable, and globally accessible form of treatment to the estimated 537 million adults living with diabetes worldwide.

Daniell’s work exemplifies how scientific innovation can reshape healthcare, bringing us one step closer to a world where life-saving treatment is not only improved but also more accessible and affordable.

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