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Coating our gut walls with glue could treat lactose intolerance

Intestinal tissue from pigs without (left) and with (right) a synthetic coating

Junwei Li, MIT

A synthetic glue that sticks to the inside of the small intestine could form the basis of a treatment for several health conditions, including lactose intolerance, diabetes and obesity. Tests in pigs show that the glue, when enhanced with enzymes or other chemicals, regulates the gut’s ability to absorb key nutrients.

The small intestine absorbs nutrients from food, but it doesn’t always work to its full potential. Lactose intolerance, for example, occurs when the small intestine doesn’t produce enough of an enzyme called lactase that is required to digest lactose – the sugar found in milk.

To help treat lactose intolerance and other digestive disorders, Giovanni Traverso at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US and his colleagues developed a synthetic glue that can line the small intestine and regulate the uptake of different nutrients.

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The lining is introduced by consuming a drink containing chemicals that bind together when they encounter an enzyme found in the small intestine. The resulting substance, called polydopamine, is similar to the glue used by mussels to grip onto wet rocks on the seashore. It sticks tightly to the intestinal lining.

The researchers found they could control the uptake of different nutrients in the small intestines of pigs by adding various substances to the synthetic lining. For example, they were able to increase lactose digestion 20-fold by incorporating lactase into the lining.

The team also showed they could reduce glucose uptake in the pigs by mixing a particular type of nanoparticle into the lining. This may represent a new treatment for diabetes and obesity, which are associated with excess glucose, says Traverso.

The synthetic lining adhered to the small intestine for about 24 hours before naturally washing off and being excreted. This means the drink containing the glue building blocks would need to be consumed daily to keep replenishing the lining, says Traverso.

No observable side-effects were observed in pigs, but further safety studies will need to be conducted in other animals – possibly non-human primates – before the technology is tested in people, says Traverso. “We anticipate first-in-human studies in the next 3 to 5 years,” he says.

Journal reference: Science Translational Medicine, DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.abc0441

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