Cough Medicine As Diabetes Treatment? Dextromethorphan Found To Increase Insulin Release

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A compound in cough medicine known as dextromethorphan may assist in treating diabetes, doctors discovered in a new study. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

An ingredient found in cough medicine may assist in treating diabetes, according to a new study out of the Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf, Germany.

According to the study, published in the journal Nature Medicine, dextromethorphan, often listed simply as “DM” on the labels of cold medications, boosted the release of insulin in mice, human pancreatic tissue samples, and then in a small group of diabetes patients. DM has far fewer side effects than most current type 2 diabetes drugs, which is what prompted the doctors to believe it may be a new potential treatment option.

Type 2 diabetes is characterized by very high levels of blood sugar, or glucose, which the cells require to live. But people with type 2 diabetes don’t produce enough insulin (which comes from the pancreas and moves glucose out of the blood and into the cells where it’s needed). As a result, blood sugar remains high, unable to move to the cells.

The authors of the study interestingly did not plan on studying dextromethorphan as a potential treatment for diabetes initially; instead, they fell into it by chance. Inspired by previous research, the authors were originally focusing on a disorder called hyperinsulism, which is essentially the opposite of diabetes in that it involves a person having too much insulin. They hypothesized that dextromethorphan would actually lower and suppress insulin release in patients with hyperinsulinism.

But while studying it, they discovered that a certain compound that’s released as a byproduct of DM, dextrorphan, actually increased insulin release from a patient’s pancreas — thus making it potentially useful in treating type 2 diabetes.

The researchers aren’t entirely sure how it works; however, they assume it has something to do with suppressing the NMDA receptors, or N-Methyl-D-Aspartate receptors. When a sick person takes coughing medicine, it suppresses these receptors, which are located in the medulla oblongata — a part of the brainstem above the spinal cord. Somehow, suppressing NMDA receptors also increases insulin release in the pancreas.

If you have diabetes, the last thing you should do is use cough medication to treat your disease. The authors note that not enough is yet known about DM’s effects on diabetes patients, because the study was very small.

“To date, we only have results from a single-dose clinical trial, which make us optimistic; but [this is] not sufficient to evaluate the clinical benefits of this drug for the long-term treatment of people with diabetes,” Eckhard Lammert, a professor of animal physiology at the Heinrich Heine University and an author of the study, told LiveScience. “My hope is that our study triggers further clinical trials at established diabetes centers.”

Source: Marquard J, Otter S, Welters A, Stirban A, Fischer A, Eglinger J. “Characterization of pancreatic NMDA receptors as possible drug targets for diabetes treatment.” Nature Medicine, 2015.

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