One Day, We Could Treat Diabetes With Just A Probiotic Pill

Engineered bacteria could become treatments for common diseases.

One Day, We Could Treat Diabetes With Just A Probiotic Pill
[Photos: PavelIvanov via Shutterstock]

Probiotic treatments have been proposed for everything from allergies to high blood pressure. And now here’s another possibility of how dosing our systems with “good bacteria” can make us healthier–as a remedy for diabetes.


Scientists at Cornell University have shown how a re-engineered version of a common bacteria called lactobacillus lowers blood glucose levels in rats. If the work translates successfully to humans, it could lead to an oral treatment for diabetics.

In diabetes patients, the pancreas either doesn’t produce enough insulin hormone or the body fails to respond to it. Because their body doesn’t regulate blood sugar levels properly, they can become hyperglycemic, leading to other problems like stroke and heart disease.

The lactobacillus was engineered to produce a chemical (a peptide called GLP-1) that causes certain cells in the upper intestine to behave like pancreatic cells that regulate glucose levels. In effect, the researchers believe that the bacteria causes the gut to behave more like a normal-functioning pancreas.

“When we fed it to the [diabetic] rats, we found we could significantly reduce their blood glucose level,” says John March, an associate professor in the department of biological and environmental engineering at Cornell, who led the research. “When we investigated how much insulin was being produced in their intestines, it was high compared to the control group.”

After 90 days of daily dosing, the rats administered with the probiotic had glucose levels up to 30% lower than the control group.

Diabetes is a growing problem around the world. In the U.S., about 29 million people–or 9.3% of the population–now suffer from one form or another. An oral treatment might be cheap and easy to take, though any product is likely many years away. First, the idea has to be tested in higher doses with rats, then it would have to go through a clinical trial process for humans and approved by the FDA. But, the idea has attracted commercial interest. BioPancreate, a subsidiary of a Swedish company called Cortendo, has licensed the technology.


March’s research focuses on several practical uses for bacteria for health and environmental purposes. Another project involves developing a probiotic to trick cholera into leaving the body before it colonizes and does harm.

“We engineered probiotics to secrete a signal so that when cholera comes in, it thinks that it’s already colonized and it doesn’t need to make the toxins that it normally makes, and so it leaves,” March explains.

The larger lesson in his research is that we’re really only at the beginning of understanding how bacteria could be used to improve our health.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.