People who suffer from diabetes have several problems to deal with on a daily basis, the most important of which is maintaining a healthy level of blood sugar in their bodies. A related problem is the discomfort of daily sticks or needles, which are used to draw a small blood sample to check the level of blood sugar. While not life-threatening, the repeated discomfort of the needles, and sometimes even a deep-seated fear of the sharp sticks, can turn into a serious stumbling block to self-care and self-testing for some people. Alternative methods of insulin delivery, including administering the drug through the nose as inhaled insulin, or swallowing it in the form of a pill, are all being studied.
Although inhaled insulin has been the topic of discussion and speculation for many years, it has not become a viable alternative yet. Drug companies are continuing their research and still hope to be able to bring it to market. One drug company did bring inhaled insulin to market in 2006, but soon after voluntarily removed it from drugstore shelves for several reasons.
Inhaled insulin begins as a powder formulation. The powder is distributed via an inhaler, which sends it to the lungs. Similar in form and function to an asthmatic’s inhaler, an insulin inhaler would be held to the open mouth and sprayed while the patient inhales the drug into the lungs. From there the insulin would travel to the body’s bloodstream. It is considered a fast-acting drug, typically going to work within minutes of use.
The inhaled insulin on the market did not fare well as a diabetes treatment. The cost was high, and also diabetics did not turn to it as enthusiastically as drug makers had hoped. Also, the Food and Drug Administration in the United States raised the possibility the drug could be related somehow to lung cancer and other problems.
One of the problems with this type of drug concerned the type of patient who would be able to use it as a diabetes treatment. Smokers were ruled out because researchers found that too much of the drug traveled to the bloodstream. Also ruled out were patients with asthma and other lung disorders, such as emphysema. While problems with this type of insulin delivery system remain, researchers continue to study inhaled insulin as a way to deliver diabetic treatment to patients with both types of the disease, Type 1 and Type 2.