Say you’re diabetic: Instead of having to inject yourself with insulin multiple times a day, imagine only having to do it once a week. Crazy, right? And instead of your syringe harboring glucose-regulating insulin, imagine it filled with nanoscopic particles you fire into your bloodstream — particles capable of detecting when your body’s blood sugar levels rise and releasing insulin accordingly.
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 a Kurzweilian science fiction fantasy may soon be reality for the estimated 25.8 million children and adults in the U.S. alone — 8.3% of the population, according to the American Diabetes Association — with high blood sugar (and 366 million in all worldwide).
“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 NC State University biomedical engineering assistant professor Dr. Zhen Gu, the lead author of a paper describing the work (via NC State news). “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.”
Diabetes, also known as diabetes mellitus to describe the full range of health complications the disease encompasses, is essentially about glucose or “blood sugar” control. Glucose is a crucial energy-delivering body fuel, but it requires the hormone insulin to convey it to the body’s cellular network. If you don’t produce enough insulin, glucose can accumulate to unhealthy levels, resulting in all sorts of unpleasant symptoms that can range from mild to life-threatening.
Thus diabetics have to monitor their glucose levels throughout the day, periodically injecting themselves with insulin to regulate their blood sugar levels. That means keeping diagnostic tools — as well as insulin — handy at all times, learning how much insulin to administer with each dose (not as straightforward as it might sound, and getting this wrong poses its own complications), to say nothing of the pain involved with having to receive multiple injections daily.
Enter nano-technology, but not as you’ve probably heard it described in so many pie-in-the-sky futurism stories involving microscopic autonomous robots capable of swarming through our physiologies to target the bad stuff (say cancer cells) without harming any of the good stuff, scrubbing us clean and streamlining our biological systems. That’s probably in the cards further down the road, but it doesn’t mean nano-technology won’t impact us near term.
Like this particular approach to diabetes management, which involves a “nano-network” cocktail of nanoparticles, each containing a core of solid insulin and specially tweaked enzymes sensitive to glucose. After the cocktail is introduced to the bloodstream, these enzymes circulate through the system, bumping into glucose and converting it to insulin on the fly. And according to the researchers, the enzymes are “fully biocompatible and dissolve in the body.”
It’s not called a “nano-network” for splashy publicity reasons, either — it actually functions as a kind of rudimentary network thanks to 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 Gu, adding that “This has the potential to improve the health and quality of life of diabetes patients.”
Next up: human trials, according to the research team. The full results of the research were just published in science journal ACS Nano.