People suffering from diabetes need to constantly monitor their sugar intake, as well as regularly inject themselves with insulin to regulate their blood sugar levels. Injections are often painful and imprecise, but a new method promises to change that.
A team of researchers from North Carolina has created a smart insulin patch. A similar proof of concept was presented last year, showing that it was able to keep blood sugar levels under control in mice with type-1 diabetes. The latest prototype shows that the technology can quickly respond to skyrocketing blood sugar levels and lower them significantly for up to 10 hours in diabetic mice.
The new smart insulin patch, presented in Advance Materials, is a polymeric square covered in tiny needles. The biopolymer hosts live beta cells, which are responsible for the production of insulin. These cells don’t work properly in people suffering from diabetes. Attempts to transplant beta cells have been going on since the 1970s, and the first successful transplant only happened in 1990. Unfortunately, the rejection rate for these types of interventions is quite high.
“This study provides a potential solution for the tough problem of rejection, which has long plagued studies on pancreatic cell transplants for diabetes,” said senior author Zhen Gu, assistant professor in the joint UNC/NC state department of biomedical engineering, in statement. “Plus it demonstrates that we can build a bridge between the physiological signals within the body and these therapeutic cells outside the body to keep glucose levels under control.”
The beta cell capsule is not the only innovation in the new smart patch. The needles are covered in three chemicals that act as “glucose-signal” amplifiers. This tweak guarantees that the beta cells know when the blood sugar level is rising so they can start producing insulin.
The smart insulin patch is promising, but it will have to go through more modifications, pre-clinical trials, and eventually human trials. Nevertheless, the technology could have an impact on the 387 million people worldwide that suffer from diabetes.
“Managing diabetes is tough for patients because they have to think about it 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for the rest of their lives,” said co-author John Buse, MD, Ph.D., professor of medicine at the UNC School of Medicine and director of the UNC Diabetes Care Center and the NC Translational and Clinical Sciences Institute. “These smart insulin approaches are exciting because they hold the promise of giving patients some time off with regards to their diabetes self-care. It would not be a cure but a desperately needed vacation.”
Image credit: A close-up false-color image of the smart insulin patch. The lab of Zhen Gu, Ph.D.