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Artificial beta cells could lead to new diabetes treatment
November 5, 2017, 2:06 pm

Researchers into diabetes treatment at the University of North Carolina and NC State in the US have developed a patient-friendly option to replace painful and frequent insulin injections, or a mechanical insulin pump, in treating type 1 and some type2 diabetes. The innovative approach uses artificial cells that automatically release insulin into the bloodstream when glucose levels rise.

The ‘artificial beta cells’ (AβCs) mimic the functions of insulin-secreting beta cells of the pancreas, which are the body's natural glucose-controllers. The loss or dysfunction of these beta cells in the body causes type 1 diabetes and many cases of type 2 diabetes. The idea is that the AβCs could be subcutaneously inserted into patients, which would be replaced every few days, or by a painless and disposable skin patch.

The research team reported that a single injection of the AβCs into diabetic mice lacking beta cells quickly normalized the animals' blood glucose levels and kept those levels normal for up to five days.

The researchers plan to further optimize and test these synthetic cells in larger animals, develop a skin patch delivery system for them, and ultimately test them in people with diabetes.

The major problem with current insulin treatments in the form of pills is they are large molecules which are destroyed by digestive enzymes and acids before it reaches the bloodstream. Transplants of pancreatic cells can solve that problem in some cases. However, such cell transplants are expensive, require donor cells that are often in short supply, require immune-suppressing drugs, and often fail due to the destruction of the transplanted cells.

The new AβCs are constructed with a simplified version of a normal beta cell's two-layered lipid membrane. The key innovation in AβCs is that these cells contain specially designed, insulin-stuffed vesicles. A rise in blood glucose levels leads to chemical changes in the vesicle coating, causing the vesicles to start fusing with the AβC's outer membrane and releasing the insulin payloads.

The AβCs showed a rapid responsiveness to excess glucose levels in lab-dish tests and in diabetic mice without beta cells. "The mice went from hyperglycemic to normal-glycemic within an hour, and they remained normal-glycemic for up to five days after that,” said the researchers.

They now plan further preclinical tests and expect to develop a method for delivering the cells painlessly via a skin patch that could be simply replaced.

There is still much work needed to optimize this artificial-cell approach before human studies are attempted, but these results so far are a remarkable, creative first step to a new way to solve the diabetes problem using chemical engineering as opposed to mechanical pumps or living transplants.


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