This innovative new diabetes drug is switched on by LED light

by Barbara Hewitt on October 16, 2014

A new drug for type 2 diabetes that is switched on by a blue light shone on the skin is being developed by scientists.

The prototype drug known as JB253 has been found to stimulate insulin release from pancreatic cells in the laboratory when exposed to blue LED light. Scientists say it has the potential to improve the treatment of the disease.


Researchers have adapted an existing drug called a sulfonylurea so it changes shape when exposed to blue light

Diabetes drugs that promote the release of insulin from the pancreas can, in some cases, cause side effects due to their actions on other organs like the brain and heart. Some can also stimulate too much insulin release, causing blood sugar levels to drop too low.

The work, by researchers at Imperial College London and LMU Munich, has adapted an existing type of drug called a sulfonylurea so that it changes shape when exposed to blue light.

The drug would be inactive under normal conditions, but a patient could, in theory, switch it on using blue LEDs stuck to the skin. Only a small amount of light would need to penetrate the skin to change the drug’s shape and turn it on. This change is reversible, so the drug switches off again when the light goes off.

‘In principle, this type of therapy may allow better control over blood sugar levels because it can be switched on for a short time when required after a meal. It should also reduce complications by targeting drug activity to where it’s needed in the pancreas,’ said Dr. David Hudson from the department of medicine at Imperial College, London.

‘So far, we’ve created a molecule that has the desired effect on human pancreatic cells in the lab. There’s a long way to go before a therapy is available to patients, but this remains our ultimate goal,’ he added.

Type 2 diabetes affects around 350 million people worldwide. It impairs people’s control over their blood sugar levels, leading to higher risk of heart disease and stroke and potentially causing damage to the kidneys, nerves and retinas.

Although molecules that react to light have been known about since the 19th century, only in the last few years have scientists exploited their properties to make light-sensitive molecules with drug effects.

‘Photoswitchable drugs and photopharmacology could be enormously useful for all sorts of diseases, by allowing remote control over specific body processes with light,’ said Professor Dirk Trauner of LMU Munich.

The research was funded by Diabetes UK, the European Foundation for the Study of Diabetes, the European Research Council, the Wellcome Trust and the Medical Research Council.

Dr. Richard Elliott of Diabetes UK pointed out that Sulfonylureas help many people to manage type 2 diabetes even though, like other medications, they can have side effects. ‘Work on light-activated medications is still at a relatively early stage, but this is nevertheless a fascinating area of study that, with further research, could help to produce a safer, more tightly controllable version of this important therapy,’ 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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