Researchers are developing a new therapy that could mean those suffering with diabetes would no longer need to inject themselves with insulin. Using genetically engineered cells inserted as a patch under the skin, the treatment has been successfully trialled in mice, and is now looking to be tested in humans. The work has been published in the journal Science.
The researchers managed to achieve this by re-engineering human kidney cells. Known as HEK cells, the team co-opted the natural glucose transport proteins and potassium channels already present in the membrane of the cells. By adding in a gene that then made the HEK cells sensitive to glucose, and another that told them to release insulin when a glucose threshold level was met, the scientists were able to create the artificial beta cells.
When implanted under the skin of mice that had type-1 diabetes, the engineered cells were able to detect when the glucose levels in the blood started to spike and subsequently release insulin to bring it back down to the correct figure. In fact, in a strange twist, the reengineered cells were found to actually outperform normal pancreatic cells that have evolved over millions of years to regulate blood sugar levels.
The cells were functioning for up to three weeks, but the researchers think that in the future it could potentially lead to implants in humans that would only have to be replaced three times a year, meaning patients would be able to do away with insulin injections. Because the cells are not actually placed directly into the patient’s body, but rather in a porous capsule under the skin that allows the insulin to pass through, it means that there is no need to genetically match the implant to the recipient.
This would dramatically reduce costs, as the patches could be mass produced and shipped out. Bringing this latest research to market, however, is not a quick process. The earliest the researchers expect that they could hit the market would be in 10 years, and that is provided they clear all the hurdles first time around. If the researchers are able to get a clinical license, it could pave the way for both type-1 and type-2 sufferers never needing a needle again.