Scientists Develop “Superior” Plant-Based Insulin That Can Be Taken Orally

Scientists at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) have used lettuce to develop plant-based insulin that could provide a cheaper and safer alternative to insulin delivered by injection.

Insulin injections are currently vital for many diabetic patients, but they can cause the hormone to reach the bloodstream too quickly, resulting in low blood sugar. Additionally, clinical insulin lacks one of the three peptides found in natural insulin.

“Patients can get a superior drug at a lower cost.”

Developed at UPenn’s Daniell lab, the plant-based insulin contains all three peptides, with research suggesting that it behaves very similarly to the natural hormone. It is made by blasting human insulin genes through lettuce cell walls, where they become integrated into the plant’s genome. When the lettuce has grown, it is freeze dried and ground so that it can be taken orally.

The method is far cheaper than current insulin production techniques, which require complex laboratory equipment. Conventional clinical insulin also needs to be kept at low temperatures, while the plant-based insulin is shelf-stable; this will make it much cheaper to store and transport.

Plant-based insulin
Image: Henry Daniell

Changing the paradigm

Many medications have traditionally been derived from plants, and modern researchers are increasingly investigating plant-based treatments. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Israeli startup Novel Concepts developed a plant-based “cure”, helping to inhibit the virus’ connection to human cells.

Early last year, a plant-based COVID vaccine was approved in Canada, made by using living plants as bioreactors to produce non-infectious particles mimicking the virus. In future, it is reported that plant-based vaccines could outperform traditional ones due to a shorter and more effective manufacturing process.

“With this delivery system, we change the whole paradigm, not only for insulin,” said Henry Daniell, a researcher who led the project at UPenn. “I grew up in a developing country and saw people die because they couldn’t afford drugs or vaccines. For me, affordability and global access to health care are the foundation for my work. And in this case, we are making insulin more affordable while significantly improving it. Patients can get a superior drug at a lower cost.”

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