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No Insulin Shots? Diabetes 'Cure' Under Study In San Antonio

Wendy Rigby
Texas Public Radio
Pricking their finger to check their blood sugar levels several times a day is routine for many diabetics.

A possible cure for diabetes is on the horizon for the millions of people who suffer from the disease. The important research is being conducted in San Antonio. The technique is designed to make the body produce insulin on its own again.

Diabetic patients have to use finger pricks to check blood sugar and insulin shots to control their glucose levels.


"It's part of my daily routine all day and at night before I go to bed, all of it has to be done," said type two diabetic Denise Shank. She has been a slave to this routine for 29 years. She’s among millions of people who have to take injected insulin to control their blood sugar levels.

Credit Wendy Rigby / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
Bruno Doiron, Ph.D., and Ralph DeFronzo, MD, are two of the scientists working on the diabetes gene transfer therapy at UT Health San Antonio.


"It's a pain and it’s time consuming," Shank added. "In other words you can’t just get up in the morning and put your clothes on and go somewhere."

"This becomes a big burden for diabetic patients," explained Ralph DeFronzo, MD, a world renown diabetes researcher and director of the Division of Diabetesat UT Health San Antonio. "So it would be nice if they could just go around, not ever have to take another insulin injection, not ever have to do a finger stick for glucose."

DeFronzo and his colleague, biologist Bruno Doiron, Ph.D.,believe they are onto a technique that will be a game changer. It’s called gene transfer.

Using lab-created sections of DNA, scientists injected the pancreases of mice with a cocktail of three molecules delivered by a virus. That virus infects the cells, spreading the new gene information and sparking those cells to produce insulin. Sort of like a cold virus makes your nose run.

Credit UT Health San Antonio
Treated pancreatic cells (left) exhibit new insulin-producing cells as green dots. Untreated cells (right) show little of this action.


"Basically, what we’re going to do is we’re going to give you a runny pancreas," DeFronzo said. "We’re going to put the genes in the pancreas and the 'runny-ness' is you’re going to now release the insulin."

Unlike injections of insulin, the body’s own insulin corrects minute to minute based upon what you eat and how it raises your blood sugar. So far, it looks like just one gene transfer could be a permanent fix, since dividing cells carry the new genetic information with them.

Biologist Doiron says the results exceeded many expectations. "We’re able to cure a mice model for more than one year without any side effects," He stated. "We’re thinking that it could be permanent."

Credit Wendy Rigby / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
Using lab-created sections of DNA, scientists injected the pancreases of mice with a cocktail of three molecules delivered by a virus.


In humans, the therapy could be introduced using endoscopy, where an instrument inserted through the throat reaches the pancreas. The new molecules would be inserted directly to the organ itself through a catheter.

For type one patients, a potential cure. Type two patients would still have to take a pill to correct for insulin resistance.

DeFronzo says most people could deal with that easily. "If you only had to take one pill, even if you’re a type two, and you could get rid of the insulin, that would be a huge, huge advance and make life a lot easier for these people," DeFronzo commented.

The San Antonio study was published in the journal Current Pharmaceutical Biotechnology. Scientists received a patent in January and they’re forming a spinoff company from UT Health to commercialize the breakthrough treatment if and when it wins approval from the Food and Drug Administration.

DeFronzo is confident. "If successful, this would be a huge advance for all people with diabetes. And that’s millions of people," he added.

Uncontrolled blood sugar can lead to kidney disease, amputation, blindness, heart disease and death.

Credit Wendy Rigby / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
Insulin can be expensive. Administering it can be time-consuming. That's why scientists around the world are trying to come up with alternatives for this life-saving therapy.


Any advance that could normalize a diabetic’s life would be welcome news. "

Oh, it definitely gives me hope," Shank said. "It would be wonderful."

Like all good scientists, DeFronzo offers this caution. "I'm the first person to say mice are not men."

Therefore, the next step is to raise $5 million to $10 million to continue studies on larger animals: dogs, pigs or monkeys.

Tests in people could start in about three years. South Texas patients will be some of the first to try the gene transfer therapy.

Wendy Rigby is a San Antonio native who has worked as a journalist for more than 25 years. She spent two decades at KENS-TV covering health and medical news. Now, she brings her considerable background, experience and passion to Texas Public Radio.