Leukemia drug may help type 2 diabetes

The cancer drug Gleevec could have benefits for people with type 2 diabetes, according to new research from South Korea.

Imatinib, marketed by Novartis as Gleevec, is a cancer drug that is used to treat leukemia and gastrointestinal tumors.

The drug has similarities to the class of type 2 diabetes drugs known as thiazolidinediones (TZDs). TZD drugs include Actos and Avandia.

The team of researchers, from Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (UNIST) in South Korea, investigated the effects of Gleevec on mice. The mice were induced with type 2 diabetes by feeding them a high calorie diet. After being treated with Gleevec, the mice showed signs of reduced insulin resistance.

The researchers noted that Gleevec helps white fat cells develop into brown fat cells. White fat cells act as energy stores whereas brown fat cells help to provide heat for the body. In providing heat, they help to burn off excess calories. However, the body cannot keep on burning calories to provide heat otherwise the body would overheat and cause damage to organs. Therefore, there is only a certain amount of calories that can be burned off to create heat.

What this means is that the drug can help as a treatment but only up to a limit. It would still be important for people to control their eating in order to gain benefits from the drug.

While the UNIST research news page reported the study as being a ‘New Hope for a Type 2 Diabetes Cure’, this assertion looks highly optimistic.

The researchers note that Gleevec did not cause severe side effects, however, the drug is associated with a number of side effects which include low blood counts, edema (fluid retention), muscle cramps, bone pain and gastrointestinal side effects. Human studies would be needed to demonstrate that severe side effects do not occur.

Readers should note that around a decade ago, TZD drugs such as Avandia and Actos were viewed as a great hope for type 2 diabetes but fell out of favour once long term data found that the drugs were connected with a number of side effects such as heart failure and bone fractures.