Hello from Katherine, your War on Diabetes pharmacist. Last week news came out from the University of Alabama at Birmingham that is very promising for our Type 1 diabetics who are fighting their War. Researchers there have discovered that a commonly used medication for blood pressure, called verapamil, can actually improve and even reverse Type 1 diabetes in mice. Does this mean that a cure for millions of diabetics might have been sitting on pharmacy shelves all this time?
To answer that, let’s start by finding out how this discovery came to be. In previous research, it was discovered that high levels of a certain protein called TXNIP are produced when blood sugar levels are higher than normal. They also found that TXNIP in large amounts causes the death of beta cells. You remember beta cells, right? Those are the cells in the pancreas that are responsible for making our body’s insulin in response to high levels of blood sugar. In Type 1 diabetics, beta cells have been destroyed by the body’s immune system, so the body is not able to produce enough insulin to keep blood sugars under control.
Researchers at the University of Alabama discovered that verapamil lowered levels of TXNIP in beta cells when given to mice. As a result, mice who had been determined to be diabetic, with glucose levels over 300 mg/dL, were found to have such a large decrease in levels of TXNIP when given verapamil that diabetes was actually eradicated!
This is a very exciting prospect because it opens up a whole new area of research for prevention and treatment of diabetes. Verapamil is a relatively safe blood pressure medication that has been around for a number of years. If we could give it to diabetics to reverse the disease, the result would be incredible. For now, we will wait for the clinical trials in humans, which are set to begin next year.
Now before everyone starts running out and talking to their doctor about the “miracle drug” verapamil, let me bring us all back down to earth for a moment. First, studies have not been conducted on humans to see if the effect on beta cells is the same, so the FDA will require multiple trials before officially making the call that verapamil can reverse diabetes. Second, this study is strictly for type 1 diabetics, which is about 5% of the total diabetic population, and much easier to study than type 2 diabetes. In type 1 diabetes, the beta cells have been attacked by the immune system, so the clearest way to reverse the disease involves healing the beta cells. But this is only one part of a cure; the second part of the cure would be looking at the autoimmune system and ‘fixing’ it.
Type 2 diabetes is a far more complex disease and can be influenced by multiple factors. In most Type 2’s, the pancreas is still producing insulin, but the cell is not recognizing insulin, stopping it from moving the glucose from the blood into the appropriate cells. Phil and I talked about this point for an hour, and the conclusion we reached based on the available research is that people with type 2 diabetes may or may not benefit from verapamil, but it’s worth keeping our eye on. Meanwhile, remember you already have diet, exercise and meds with which to win your War on Diabetes.
In type 2 diabetes, however, the problem is more with the cells of the body and the trouble they have responding to insulin. So verapamil could have a positive effect on the beta cells, allowing the body to produce more insulin, but in type 2 diabetics this would not solve the entire problem because the cells still need to recognize the insulin. Until we solve that, we don’t have a cure for type 2 diabetes. But, as we always stress, diet, exercise, and medication are your three weapons, so use them!
Here is a short video from the University of Alabama at Birmingham that gives us a visual of how verapamil affects beta cells.
There were promising results from the use of verapamil with type 2 diabetes in a study published in 1997. There were some follow-up studies in the early 2000’s that also showed promise. I need to do some further research to understand what happened as a result of those small studies and will bring it to you next Monday, November 17th. Look for my discoveries then.
As a disclaimer, I am your “virtual” pharmacist, here to provide you with information and answers to questions. However, I am not your local pharmacist and could, in no way, be aware of your specific medical needs. Remember to always check with your medical provider and pharmacist before stopping or starting any new medications. My posts are based on general pharmacy principles and should not considered as your “first opinion” when it comes to your health. Please consult with your doctor and pharmacist about anything regarding your health.