In the not-so-distant future, type 2 diabetics may be able to forego insulin pumps and instead manage their condition with a shot of espresso or a mug of filter coffee.
A team of researchers based in Switzerland have invented a designer implant that dispatches medication whenever it detects caffeine in the bloodstream. The results of the first study, published in Nature Communications, have been extremely promising – at least, in mice.
Type 2 diabetes affects over 400 million people worldwide and costs the US health system $825 billion every year. If you develop the condition, it means the body has lost its ability to respond to insulin and regulate the blood's glucose levels, i.e., the body has become insulin resistant. Because of this, glucose levels spike after every meal.
One way to manage the condition is to regularly and frequently take pinprick samples to monitor blood sugar levels. When the blood sugar level is known, it is possible to adjust an insulin-administering pump to return levels to normal. Needless to say, the process can be time-consuming, cumbersome, and inconvenient – so Martin Fussenegger, a biotechnologist at ETH Zurich in Switerzland, and his co-workers came up with an innovative and user-friendly solution.
The team designed an implant using human kidney cells that release insulin when triggered. These were then covered in a "caviar"-like structure of gel capsules to stop the body's immune system attacking the cells while, at the same time, allowing the caffeine in and letting the medication out so that it can disperse into the bloodstream.
To test their new invention, they used a mouse model. The implant was inserted under the skin of 10 diabetic mice who were then given a variety of drinks with different levels of caffeine. Think herbal tea, coke, instant coffee, black tea, and milkshakes.
All drinks, with the exception of the milkshake and herbal tea, triggered the release of the medication. What's more, the higher the caffeine levels, the stronger the dose.
Why use caffeine as the trigger (aside from its many, many health benefits, of course)? As far as the researchers know, there are very few traces of caffeine in most drink and food, at least not in high enough levels for the implant to register. This makes it easy to control and stops anyone from accidentally triggering the implant. At least in theory.
It also makes it easy for most people to incorporate it into their daily routine, whether it's a Starbucks after breakfast or a post-lunch tea.
“You have a tea or coffee in the morning, another after lunch, and another at dinner, depending on how much drug you need to get your glucose back down,” Fussenegge told The Guardian.
Unfortunately, it might take a few years before it is fit for purpose. The treatment will have to go through several tests and trials, not least in humans, before it can be approved by the FDA or any other regulatory body.