Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed a new method for tackling diabetes that could represent a significant breakthrough in treating the condition. The team's engineered insulin stays in the patient’s bloodstream, but is only activated when sugar levels start to tip the scales.

There have been some promising developments in diabetes research over recent months. Back in October, stem cell researchers at Harvard University revealed a breakthrough on the road towards a cure for the condition via a means of creating human insulin-producing beta cells. More recently, a University of Alabama at Birmingham study showed that high blood pressure drugs have the ability to reverse the disease in animal models.

The new MIT study isn’t centered on a cure for the condition, but focuses instead on developing a better method of treatment for patients.

Type 1 diabetes patients use insulin injections to make up for a lack of the hormone in their bloodstream. Some make use of a long-acting treatment that stays in the system for 24 hours, while others keep tabs on their calorie intake and blood sugar levels to determine how much to inject. Both of these methods act independently of the patient’s blood sugar levels.

Researchers at MIT have developed a new form of treatment that not only circulates for a long period of time, but is only activated when blood sugar levels get too high. This would provide a more efficient method of dealing with glucose spikes over extended periods of time.

To create the new, glucose-responsive treatment, the researchers made two modifications. Firstly, in order to ensure that the engineered hormone stays in the bloodstream for the required length of time, a hydrophobic molecule known as an aliphatic domain was added. It’s not known for certain why the chain of fatty molecules prolong the molecule’s lifespan in the bloodstream, though it’s thought that it may bind to proteins, preventing the insulin from tackling sugar molecules.

Secondly, researchers added PBA – a chemical group that reversibly binds to glucose, thus bringing it into contact with the insulin when high levels of sugar present themselves. The team created four different variants of the engineered molecule, each containing PBA with a different chemical modification, such as fluorine or nitrogen.

To test the effectiveness of the treatment, experiments were carried out on insulin-deficient mice, measuring the response of their blood sugar levels to surges in glucose over 10 hours. The results showed that the engineered insulin containing PBA with fluorine responded fastest to the spikes, winning out against the other chemically-modified treatments, as well as traditional regular and long-acting insulin.

While further testing is required before the engineered insulin could be used in routine treatment, it could mark a significant advance in how the condition is tackled, providing a more efficient alternative to existing treatments. The MIT team plans to continue its research, working to improve the performance of the modified insulin, making it safer and more efficient.

Source: MIT