Scientists have developed a synthetic patch that contains insulin-producing beta cells and controls blood sugar levels, which might signal the end of insulin injections for people with diabetes.
People with type 1 diabetes and insulin-treated type 2 diabetes have to inject insulin every day, which is invasive, uncomfortable and can be particularly distressing for younger patients.
In June 2015, researchers at the University of North Carolina announced they had designed an insulin “smart” patch that uses a system of micro-needles to automatically detect high blood glucose levels and administer insulin appropriately.
In this new study, the same research team have upgraded the smart patch. Whereas the previous patch contained synthetic insulin, this new patch contains live beta cells – which are usually found in the pancreas – and can control rising blood glucose levels for roughly 10 hours at a time.
How does the new patch work?
Because the beta cells are kept within the patch on the outside of the body, there is no danger of them being rejected by the immune systems of people with type 1 diabetes.
People who take insulin through injections can be at risk of administering too little or too much insulin. But by containing live beta cells which respond to rising blood sugar levels, the new patch is more able to safely manage a patient’s blood glucose levels for longer.
The patch can be stuck to a patient’s skin and works by linking microneedles up to the live beta cells. The needles, which are around the size of an eyelash, are painless when applied. They provide a link between the beta cells and the patient’s bloodstream.
The researchers developed “glucose-signal amplifiers” which respond to rising blood sugar levels and relay that message back to the beta cells.
“A desperately needed vacation”
John Buse, a researcher at the University of North California, said: “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.
“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.”
The patch has been tested on mice with type 1 diabetes, and was proven to be effective at responding to rising blood glucose levels. When the researchers added a second patch to the mice, no excess insulin was produced and the patch extended the life of the treatment to 20 hours.
“This study provides a potential solution for the tough problem of rejectio, which has long plagued studies on pancreatic cell transplants for diabetes,” said study author Dr. Zhen Gu. “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 patch has not yet been tested on humans, and animal trials will continue to ensure the patch delivers the best possible performance. While clinical trials involving humans could take time, the evidence suggests that the patch could be an effective and welcome solution in eliminating insulin injections.
The findings were published in Advanced Materials.