Plant-Based Insulin: A Revolutionary Approach to Diabetes Treatment

Diabetes, an enduring condition that afflicts over half a billion adults worldwide, has long relied on insulin therapy for management. However, the conventional approach of insulin administration through injections comes with inherent risks. Now, a groundbreaking collaboration between pharmacologists and bioengineers at the University of Pennsylvania has ushered in a new era of diabetes treatment with a plant-based oral insulin that emulates the functions of natural insulin while significantly reducing the risk of hypoglycemia.



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The Challenge with Current Insulin Therapies

While insulin therapy has proven transformative for countless individuals with diabetes, it is not without limitations. Recent clinical studies have illuminated the potential for insulin injections to introduce insulin into the bloodstream at such a rapid pace that it may precipitate hypoglycemia—a critical condition where blood sugar plummets below the normal range. While automated insulin pumps offer a more refined insulin delivery system, mitigating this risk, they remain expensive and accessible to only a fraction of diabetes patients worldwide.

The Potential of Plant-Based Oral Insulin

A team at the University of Pennsylvania has just harnessed the power of plants to develop an oral insulin derived from plant sources that contains all three crucial peptides found in natural insulin. This innovative formulation enables patients to consume insulin orally, as the protective cell walls of plants shield the medication from the acids and enzymes present in the stomach. Once in the intestine, intestinal bacteria break down the plant-based insulin, facilitating its delivery to the liver via the intestine-liver axis.

In vivo experiments conducted on diabetic mice have yielded promising results, showcasing the ability of the plant-based insulin to regulate blood sugar levels within a mere 15 minutes of ingestion—a remarkable feat akin to the actions of naturally secreted insulin. In comparison, mice treated with conventional insulin injections experienced a swift decrease in blood sugar levels, predisposing them to transient hypoglycemia.

Plant-based Insulin Production

The intricate production process of plant-based insulin entails the identification of human insulin genes, which are then gently introduced into the resilient cell walls of plants using a remarkable device known as a “gene gun.” Through this process, the insulin genes seamlessly integrate into the genome of lettuce, resulting in seeds that retain the invaluable genetic information. The mature lettuce plants are then meticulously freeze-dried, ground, and meticulously prepared for oral administration, all while adhering to the rigorous guidelines set forth by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

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This innovative method of production stands in stark contrast to traditional insulin manufacturing, which traditionally involves cultivating the hormone within bacteria or yeast cells—a laborious and costly endeavor that necessitates purification and stringent temperature controls for transportation and storage. The newfound approach obviates the need for elaborate and costly laboratory equipment, yielding a product that remains stable even at ambient temperatures.

A Paradigm Shift in Diabetes Care

The advent of plant-based oral insulin heralds a transformative chapter in diabetes management, poised to revolutionize not only insulin therapy but potentially other medical domains as well. The researchers remark, “With this groundbreaking administration system, we are not only reshaping the landscape of insulin therapy but potentially changing the face of medical treatment as a whole.”

Building on their expertise in plant proteins, the team has already demonstrated the viability of a cost-effective lettuce-based medication for patients grappling with hemophilia. Furthermore, they have harnessed the power of plants to develop other plant-based medications targeting pulmonary arterial hypertension, Alzheimer’s disease, polio, and even gum disease. Additionally, the team has engineered a plant-based gum designed to diminish the viral load of COVID-19 in saliva.

Read Also: Automated Insulin Delivery System Promises Favorable Outcomes, a Study Shows

The promise of plant-based oral insulin represents an extraordinary leap forward in diabetes management, offering a safer, more natural, and potentially more accessible alternative to conventional insulin therapies. As research and innovation continue to unfold, the horizon of diabetes treatment glistens with an increasingly vibrant shade of green.


Daniell, H., Singh, R., Mangu, V., Nair, S. K., Wakade, G., & Balashova, N. (2023). Affordable oral proinsulin bioencapsulated in plant cells regulates blood sugar levels similar to natural insulin. Biomaterials, 298.



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