This insulin-releasing implant could allow diabetics to ditch needles

Imagine a device that lets people with diabetes use an app or remote control to give themselves a boost of insulin when they need it, without an injection. Researchers from ETH Zurich have developed a prototype device that can do just that, using electrical jolts 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 respond by producing and releasing insulin, which helps the body metabolize the glucose. But in people with diabetes, these cells no longer perform this function properly, leading to serious health repercussions.

This problem is normally managed by monitoring glucose levels in the blood and administering regular insulin injections. But injections aren’t exactly pleasant, so the ETH team investigated alternatives. The end result is a small device that can be remotely activated to release insulin on demand.

On one side is a capsule containing engineered human beta cells, connected to a printed circuit board (PCB) that controls them. When the PCB is activated by a radio signal, an electrical signal is transmitted to stimulate calcium and potassium channels in the beta cells. That triggers the expression of the insulin gene, releasing insulin within a few minutes. The idea is that this device could be implanted beneath the skin of a patient with diabetes. The beta cells can be zapped on demand to release insulin, controlled either by the patient, their doctor or automatically at preset times.

The team tested the device by implanting it beneath the skin of mice with type 1 diabetes. The researchers were able to wirelessly control the insulin release, which peaked within 10 minutes of activation. The device was enough to restore normal blood glucose levels in the mice.

“A device of this kind would enable people to be fully integrated into the digital world and become part of the Internet of Things – or even the Internet of the Body,” said Martin Fussenegger, lead researcher of the study.

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This insulin-releasing implant could allow diabetics to ditch needles

Imagine a device that lets people with diabetes use an app or remote control to give themselves a boost of insulin when they need it, without an injection. Researchers from ETH Zurich have developed a prototype device that can do just that, using electrical jolts 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 respond by producing and releasing insulin, which helps the body metabolize the glucose. But in people with diabetes, these cells no longer perform this function properly, leading to serious health repercussions.

This problem is normally managed by monitoring glucose levels in the blood and administering regular insulin injections. But injections aren’t exactly pleasant, so the ETH team investigated alternatives. The end result is a small device that can be remotely activated to release insulin on demand.

On one side is a capsule containing engineered human beta cells, connected to a printed circuit board (PCB) that controls them. When the PCB is activated by a radio signal, an electrical signal is transmitted to stimulate calcium and potassium channels in the beta cells. That triggers the expression of the insulin gene, releasing insulin within a few minutes. The idea is that this device could be implanted beneath the skin of a patient with diabetes. The beta cells can be zapped on demand to release insulin, controlled either by the patient, their doctor or automatically at preset times.

The team tested the device by implanting it beneath the skin of mice with type 1 diabetes. The researchers were able to wirelessly control the insulin release, which peaked within 10 minutes of activation. The device was enough to restore normal blood glucose levels in the mice.

“A device of this kind would enable people to be fully integrated into the digital world and become part of the Internet of Things – or even the Internet of the Body,” said Martin Fussenegger, lead researcher of the study.

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