Diabetes is caused by the body’s inability to produce or respond to the pancreatic hormone insulin. One of the important physiological actions of insulin is to control blood glucose levels. Glucose is an important nutrient for cellular metabolism, and cells must receive neither too little nor too much. A deficiency in the pancreatic secretion of insulin, or lack of tissue sensitivity to the hormone, leads to diabetes, the primary feature of which is elevated blood glucose levels (hyperglycemia). Most patients can be classified as having either type I diabetes or type II diabetes. Type I is characterized by a lack of production of insulin, whereas type II is characterized by tissue resistance to the insulin that is produced by the pancreas.
Insulin cannot be administered orally, because it is a polypeptide whose physiological properties are destroyed by proteolytic enzymes present in the stomach and gastrointestinal tract. Thus, in order to enter the bloodstream and reach the body’s cells, insulin must be injected parenterally (e.g., subcutaneously). Most insulin developed for modern therapeutic applications is manufactured using recombinant DNA technology. Insulin preparations may be classified based on their duration of action and expediency of onset. In order to mimic the body’s natural patterns of insulin release, which include post-meal secretion and between-meal background, or basal, secretion, treatment regimens typically involve the administration of two different types of preparations. For example, a rapid-acting insulin preparation, meant to mimic secretion following a meal, often is combined with an intermediate-acting insulin, which mimics basal secretion. An overdose of insulin can produce hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), which may lead to convulsions.
Oral antidiabetic drugs
Type II diabetes often may be treated with oral hypoglycemic or antihyperglycemic drugs instead of with insulin. The sulfonylureas, for example, stimulate the insulin-secreting beta cells of the pancreas to produce more insulin. With long-term use, this effect appears to diminish, but plasma glucose levels remain low. The most serious adverse effect of these drugs, which occurs only rarely, is profound hypoglycemia; in severe cases this can result in coma. Repaglinide and nateglinide, which belong to a class of chemicals known as meglitinides, are other orally active compounds that stimulate insulin release from the pancreas. These agents work by closing potassium channels on the surface of beta cells, which causes an influx of calcium ions into the cells and a consequent outflow of insulin from cellular storage vesicles. The thiazolidinediones (e.g., pioglitazone, rosiglitazone) decrease insulin resistance. These oral hypoglycemic drugs exert their effects by activating so-called PPARγ (peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor-gamma) receptors, which are found primarily in adipose tissue; when activated, PPARγ prompts the transcription (synthesis of RNA from DNA) of genes that regulate glucose and lipid metabolism. Because hepatotoxicity is a major concern with thiazolidinediones, regular monitoring of liver metabolism is performed in individuals taking these drugs. Metformin, an oral antihyperglycemic drug that belongs to the biguanide class of agents, lowers glucose levels by decreasing liver production of glucose and increasing the action of insulin in fat and muscle. Chemicals in metformin medications, however, have been linked to dangerous side effects, including a possible increase in cancer risk.
Pramlintide, exenatide, and sitagliptin
Other antidiabetic drugs include pramlintide and exenatide. Pramlintide is an injectable synthetic hormone (based on the human hormone amylin) that regulates blood glucose levels by slowing the absorption of food in the stomach and by inhibiting glucagon, which normally stimulates liver glucose production. Exenatide is an injectable antihyperglycemic drug that works similarly to incretins, or gastrointestinal hormones, such as gastric inhibitory polypeptide, that stimulate insulin release from the pancreas. Exenatide has a longer duration of action than incretins produced by the body because it is less susceptible to degradation by an enzyme called dipeptidyl peptidase-4 (DPP-4). A drug called sitagliptin specifically inhibits DPP-4, thereby increasing levels of naturally produced incretins. Side effects associated with these drugs are often mild, although pramlintide can cause profound hypoglycemia in patients with type I diabetes.