Peptides have been around for nearly 100 years, but have seen a renaissance over the past two decades with potential treatment targets against cancer, anti-aging, infertility, and even obesity, to name a few. Peptides, as a class of treatment, have a huge span of biological activity from hormones to antimicrobials to potential targets in every organ system.
Peptides are essentially short proteins, defined as being less than 50 amino acids in length. They can be natural or synthetic. Their small size, low molecular weight, and simple amino acid structure let them move through barriers in the body that would normally exclude larger and more complex molecules.
The first and probably most well-known peptide therapy, insulin, was discovered in 1921. The lesser-known but commonly used peptides of oxytocin, ACTH, calcitonin, vasopressin, and leuprorelin then followed by the late 1980s. The peptide therapy boom we have seen in recent years started in the 1990s. To date, 60 peptide drugs have been approved in the United States, Europe, and Japan. There are more than 150 in active clinical development, and an additional 260 are being tested in human clinical trials.
So why is this topic being covered in a weekly functional medicine column? I’m the guy who usually writes about good sleep, exercise, taking vitamins, herbs, and so forth. Functional medicine is about utilizing useful tools available to address the root causes of disease. Peptide therapy can be one of those useful tools. It offers a safer, and possibly more effective, alternative to the traditional chemical entities used to develop most pharmaceuticals. Peptide therapy brings us one step closer to the prospective marriage of personalized medicine and pharmaceuticals in the near future. This is a future of safer and more effective targeted therapies suited to a person’s specific imbalances driving their disease.
Due to their distinct characteristics, peptide therapies offer more effective treatments that have less side effects than their chemical-pharmaceutical cousins.
Here are some peptide therapies are now currently available from your doctor: exenatide for Type 2 diabetes targeting GLP-1 receptor; teriparatide, a truncated parathyroid hormone analog offers a distinctly different way to treat osteoporosis compared to the pharmaceutical standard of oral bisphosphonates; glatiramer for multiple sclerosis by targeting the immune system through T-cell differentiation.
There are some newer peptides like BPC-157, thymosin beta 4, and thymosin alpha 1 that have very promising results with gut healing, inflammation reduction, and immune system modulation.
But be wary of some of these newer peptide therapies, as they can be purchased directly online without an experienced supervising practitioner coordinating the treatment. Due to their natural peptide state and presence in the body, some patients have a false sense of security when using them. They may not be viewing the peptides with the healthy skepticism necessary when placing any substance into their body. Keep in mind that insulin is a completely natural peptide that could kill a person rapidly if used inappropriately. Although safer than traditional chemical pharmaceuticals, you must always maintain that healthy skepticism toward any treatment.
The importance of this shift in pharmaceuticals from a broad range of chemicals with a variety of effects to engineered and targeted peptide therapies opens the door to the higher potency of the intended effect and decreased probability of adverse reactions.
Armen Nikogosian, MD, practices functional and integrative medicine at Southwest Functional Medicine in Henderson, Nev. He is board-certified in internal medicine and a member of the Institute for Functional Medicine and the Medical Academy of Pediatric Special Needs. His practice focuses on the treatment of complex medical conditions with a special emphasis on autism spectrum disorder in children as well as chronic gut issues and autoimmune conditions in adults.