Smart patch with natural beta cells can control blood sugar levels

by Barbara Hewitt on March 15, 2016

Scientists in the United States have developed a smart patch filled with natural beta cells that can secret doses of insulin to control blood sugar in diabetics.

For decades, researchers have tried to duplicate the function of beta cells, the tiny insulin producing entities that don’t work properly in people with diabetes.

Insulin injections provide painful and often imperfect substitutes while transplants of normal beta cells carry the risk of rejection or side effects from immunosuppressive therapies.

diabetes-insulin-blood test

Now the team at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University believe that this new synthetic patch filled with natural beta cells can deliver the right does of insulin on demand with no risk of inducing hypoglycaemia.

The new patch builds on previous work and is a thin polymeric square about the size of a quarter coin and covered in tiny needles like a miniature bed of nails. But whereas the former approach filled these needles with manmade bubbles of insulin, the smart cell patch integrates the needles with live beta cells.

Tests in small animal models of type 1 diabetes showed that it could quickly respond to skyrocketing blood sugar levels and significantly lower them for 10 hours at a time.

“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.

“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,” he added.

Diabetes affects more than 387 million people worldwide, and that number is expected to grow to 500 million by the year 2030. People with type 1 and advanced type 2 diabetes must regularly monitor their blood sugar levels and inject themselves with varying amounts of insulin, a process that is painful and imprecise.

Injecting the wrong amount of medication can lead to significant complications like blindness and limb amputations, or even more disastrous consequences such as diabetic comas and death.

Since the 1970s, researchers have researched transplantation of insulin-producing cells as an alternative treatment for diabetes. The first successful transplant of human beta cells was performed in 1990, and since then hundreds of diabetic patients have undergone the procedure.

Yet, only a fraction of treated patients achieved normal blood sugar levels. Most transplants are rejected, and many of the medications used to suppress the immune system wind up interfering with the activity of beta cells and insulin. More recently, researchers have been experimenting with ways to encapsulate beta cells into biocompatible polymeric cells that could be implanted in the body.

Gu decided to create a device that would put the blood sugar buffering properties of beta cells out of reach of the patient’s immune system. The patches have been built using natural materials commonly found in cosmetics and diagnostics.

When applied to the skin, the patch’s microneedles poke into the capillaries and blood vessels, forming a connection between the internal environment and the external cells of the patch.

The experiment showed that blood sugar levels in diabetic mice quickly declined to normal levels. To assess whether the patch could regulate blood sugar without lowering it too much, the researchers administered a second patch to the mice. As they had hoped, repeated administration of the patch did not result in excess doses of insulin, and thus did not risk hypoglycaemia. Instead, the second patch extended the life of the treatment to 20 hours.

Further modifications, pre-clinical tests, and eventually clinical trials in humans will all be necessary before the patch can become a viable option but the researchers believe their results provide a proof of principle for an alternative approach that could be safer and less cumbersome than current treatments.

“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, 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,” he added.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the Community and should not be interpreted as medical advice. Please see your doctor before making any changes to your diabetes management plan.

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