In a promising development for diabetes treatment, researchers have developed a network of nanoscale particles that can be injected into the body and release insulin when blood-sugar levels rise, maintaining normal blood sugar levels for more than a week.
Thanks to research conducted at North Carolina State University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Children’s Hospital Boston, what sounds like science fiction fantasy is now becoming reality for approximately 25.8 million US children and adults with high blood sugar — 8.3% of US population and 366 million worldwide, according to the American Diabetes Association.
In a promising development for diabetes treatment, researchers have developed a network of nanoscale particles that can be injected into the body and release insulin when blood-sugar levels rise, maintaining normal blood sugar levels for more than a week in animal-based laboratory tests. The work was done by researchers at those three universities.
“We’ve created a smart system that is injected into the body and responds to changes in blood sugar by releasing insulin, effectively controlling blood-sugar levels,” says Dr. Zhen Gu, lead author of a paper describing the work and an assistant professor in the joint biomedical engineering program at NC State and UNC Chapel Hill. “We’ve tested the technology in mice, and one injection was able to maintain blood sugar levels in the normal range for up to 10 days.” His research team is currently in discussions to move the technology into clinical trials for use in humans.
Diabetes mellitus is a group of metabolic diseases characterized by high blood sugar (glucose) levels that result from defects in insulin secretion, or its action, or both. Diabetes mellitus, commonly referred to as diabetes (as it will be in this article) was first identified as a disease associated with "sweet urine" and excessive muscle loss in the ancient world. Elevated levels of blood glucose (hyperglycemia) lead to spillage of glucose into the urine, hence the term sweet urine.
Normally, blood glucose levels are tightly controlled by insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas. Insulin lowers the blood glucose level. When the blood glucose elevates (for example, after eating food), insulin is released from the pancreas to normalize the glucose level. In patients with diabetes, the absence or insufficient production of insulin causes hyperglycemia. Diabetes is a chronic medical condition, meaning that although it can be controlled, it lasts a lifetime.
Currently, diabetes patients must take frequent blood samples to monitor their blood-sugar levels and inject insulin as needed to ensure their blood sugar levels are in the "normal" range. However, these injections can be painful, and it can be difficult to determine the accurate dose level of insulin. Administering too much or too little insulin poses its own health risks. With the use of the injectable nano-network, however, enzymes effectively convert glucose into gluconic acid which breaks down the modified dextran and releases the insulin, once they are exposed to high glucose levels. The insulin then brings the glucose levels under control. The gluconic acid and dextran are fully biocompatible and dissolve in the body.
It’s called a “nano-network” because of its function as a kind of rudimentary network through a positively or negatively charged biocompatible coating that’s applied to each nanoparticle core. Mix those two polarity types together and they’re attracted to each other, crucially preventing the particles from being scattered throughout the body. “This technology effectively creates a closed-loop system that mimics the activity of the pancreas in a healthy person, releasing insulin in response to glucose level changes,” says Dr. Zhen Gu, adding that this has the potential to improve the health and quality of life of diabetes patients.