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Insulin on demand, a solution for diabetes

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Researchers at the North Carolina (NC) State University and the University of North Carolina (UNC) created artificial beta cells. These cells are normally found in the pancreatic islets of the pancreas. Their main function is storing and releasing insulin.

The artificial beta cells are expected to change the manner in which type 1 diabetes and some type 2 diabetes obtain insulin treatment. Instead of frequent, painful insulin injections or the use of an insulin pump, the artificial cells offers a less invasive and more responsive manner of treatment. The cells mimic the functions of natural beta cells in the body by automatically releasing insulin into the bloodstream when necessary.

Diabetes patients can have the cells introduced into their body through a subcutaneous injection replaceable at set intervals or from a skin patch. The smart insulin patch is still being engineered but will be able to sense the glucose level in the bloodstream and release insulin when needed. The new method will save diabetes patients the pain of taking once so often insulin injections. The innovation was reported in the ‘Nature Chemical Biology‘ journal.

During the study, researchers used diabetic mice to inject the artificial beta cells. The mice showed very quick improvement, their blood glucose level normalized and stayed at a tolerant level for up to five days.

The artificial cells resemble natural cells consisting of the two-layered lipid membranes, but also contain insulin packed vesicles that undergo a chemical change when the level of glucose increase   in the body causing them to fuse with the outer membrane and release insulin.

The treatment is still the testing phase. Ph.D. professor Zhen Gu, the principal investigator for the joint NC/UNC Department of Biomedical Engineering, says that the aim is to optimize and conduct further testing on larger animals with the ultimate goal being to test on patients suffering from diabetes.

It is estimated that some 415 million people globally suffer from one type or the other of diabetes. That’s 1 in 11 of the world’s adult population. At present, insulin injections or the use of mechanic pumps seem to be the only efficient method of introducing insulin into the body, but their main inconvenience is their inability to automatically control the glucose levels.

Other methods sometimes contemplated include the use of pills but have the inconvenience that pills are often destroyed and digested before reaching the bloodstream. Another method is by pancreatic cells transplant, however, it requires finding a donor and often necessitate immune-suppressing drugs and is also quite expensive.

It took professor Zhen Gu and his team of researchers a decade to arrive at these results. Professor John Buse of UNC and Director of the UNC Diabetes Care Centres notes that “the results are impressive. Even if work is still needed before testing can be attempted on humans, they pave the way for the use of chemical engineering instead of mechanical pumps for treating diabetes patients”

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