A new insulin smart patch could replace uncomfortable insulin injections for people with diabetes in the near future.
The device, developed at the University of North Carolina, automatically detects high blood glucose levels and administers insulin appropriately, through a system of micro-needles.
How does the smart insulin patch work?
The smart insulin patch – which is no bigger than a coin – is attached to the skin like a plaster. Built in to the patch are over one hundred eyelash-sized needles, each of which has a tiny storage unit for insulin. The needles also contain blood glucose-monitoring enzymes, making them capable of automatically delivering insulin to correct rises in blood sugar.
“We have designed a patch for diabetes that works fast, is easy to use, and is made from nontoxic, biocompatible materials,” said co-senior author Professor Zhen Gu, of the Department of Biomedical Engineering.
“The whole system can be personalised to account for a diabetic’s weight and sensitivity to insulin so we could make the smart patch even smarter.”
How far along is the smart insulin patch development?
So far the patch has only been tested on mice. During these tests, the researchers were able to automatically regulate the blood glucose levels of the mice for as long as nine hours. The researchers remain highly confident that the patch will be applicable to humans in the not-too-distant future.
That said, it will have to be rigorously tested to make sure it is entirely safe for humans. There are other considerations too, such as how difficult the patch will be to apply and remove, and how often it will have to be done. The development may take some time. The researchers have stated that their eventual goal is to develop smart insulin patches that would only have to be changed every few days.
“This is way cool technology,” said Dr. John Buse, one of the paper’s authors and director of North Carolina Diabetes Care Centre.
“It’s very, very exciting, but very preliminary. It will take years to work out whether this actually will work well in humans. But if it did, it would be amazing.”
“If we can get these patches to work in people, it will be a game changer.”
How will the smart insulin patch help people with diabetes?
If the smart insulin patch works like the researchers are hoping it will, it could spell the end of insulin injections for people with type 1 or insulin-dependent type 2 diabetes.
Insulin injections are perhaps the most key aspect of diabetes management for people with type 1 diabetes. Daily insulin injections are required in order to keep blood glucose levels under control.
Unfortunately, insulin injections can be very uncomfortable, causing bruising or lumpy skin. In particular, insulin injections can be a source of anxiety for people with a fear of needles.
But insulin injections don’t just inflict physical discomfort. There is also the stress of having to carefully measure insulin dosage to match carbohydrate intake. The smart insulin patch could potentially address all of these issues.
“The hard part of diabetes care is not the insulin shots, or the blood sugar checks, or the diet but the fact that you have to do them all several times a day every day for the rest of your life,” said Dr. Buse.
The smart insulin patch would also offset some of the pressures of blood glucose testing. While wearing the patch, high blood glucose levels would automatically be detected and balanced with insulin.
However, the patch does not correct or detect low blood glucose levels. While the main cause of hypoglycemia is misjudged insulin injections – which would no longer be an issue while wearing the patch – moderate exercise combined with low carbohydrate intake could still trigger low blood sugars, for example. People with diabetes will still need to test for this.
The research was published in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences.
Image source: Courtesy of the lab of Zhen Gu.

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