Imagine a device in the future that would allow diabetics to inject themselves with insulin when they need it, rather than without it,media New Atlas reported. Researchers from the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich have developed a prototype device that can do this by using electric shocks to control gene expression in encapsulated beta cells.
The job of beta cells in the pancreas is to sense spikes in blood sugar levels and to respond by producing and releasing insulin, helping the body to metabolize glucose. But in diabetics, these cells are no longer functioning properly, causing serious health. This problem can usually be solved by monitoring blood sugar levels and injecting insulin regularly. But insulin injections weren’t a pleasant thing to do, so the ETH team looked at other methods.
The result of their development is a small device that can be activated remotely, releasing insulin on demand. On one side is a capsule containing engineered human beta cells, connected to the printed circuit board (PCB) that controls them. When the printed circuit board is activated by a radio signal, it emits electrical signals that stimulate the calcium and potassium channels in beta cells. This triggers the expression of the insulin gene, releasing insulin within a few minutes.
The device can be implanted under the skin of diabetics. Beta cells release insulin on demand and are automatically controlled by patients, doctors, or at a preset time. The team tested the device by implanting it under the skin of mice with type 1 diabetes. The researchers were able to wirelessly control the release of insulin, peaking within 10 minutes of activation. The device was sufficient to normalblood sugar levels in mice.
“We had long wanted to use electricity to directly control gene expression, and now we’ve finally succeeded,” said lead researcher Martin Fusseggeren. “Such devices will enable people to fully integrate into the digital world and become part of the Internet of Things — or even ‘physical networking’.” “
Of course, this raises the remote possibility that important biological devices will be invaded by malicious parties. The team says security precautions need to be put in place on the final device. This isn’t the only hurdle to overcome — beta cells are replaced every three weeks or so. In the current version, the team attached two “fill necks” to add more content, but in the long run, this is not practical. A more useful solution is needed if it is to be tested in humans.
At the same time, other similar technologies are being developed. Some researchers use beta cells that can be activated by light pulses or other electromagnetic waves, while others use microneedle patches containing beta cells.
The study was published in the journal Science.