While treatments for type 1 diabetes are rapidly evolving, even the most recent hi-tech artificial pancreas system still involves glucose monitors and insulin pumps. But a new development from scientists at the University of North Carolina and NC State could do away with the need for injections and glucose monitoring through the use of artificial beta cells that mimic the insulin-secreting function of healthy cells.

For patients with type 1 diabetes, and some cases of type 2 diabetes, the pancreas fails to produce effective beta cells, the cells that monitor blood sugar and release insulin to keep glucose levels normalized. Outside of manual monitoring and insulin injections, pancreatic cell treatments are an option, albeit an expensive and time consuming one.

In an effort to create synthetic beta cells that can duplicate the behavior of natural beta cells, scientists from the University of North Carolina and NC State cleverly produced artificial cells containing insulin-stuffed vesicles. The vesicles' coating can identify high glucose levels and subsequently release the load of insulin into the surrounding bloodstream.

"This is the first demonstration using such a vesicle fusion process for delivering insulin that employs insulin-containing vesicles like those found in a beta cell and can reproduce the beta cell's functions in sensing glucose and responding with insulin 'secretion'," says Zhaowei Chen, lead author on the study.

The artificial beta cells were tested in diabetic mice and within an hour of the injection the mice displayed normal blood glucose levels, and they remained at normal levels for up to five days following a single dose of the synthetic cells. The researchers are now looking to develop a specific delivery method for the synthetic cells that can be tested in human subjects.

"Our plan now is 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," says principal investigator Zhen Gu.

Although the research is an exciting step for diabetics, a great deal of development work is still ahead to not only optimize the synthetic cells, but then embark upon an expansive clinical trial process.

"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," adds the study's co-author, John Buse.

The study was published in the journal Nature Chemical Biology.

View gallery - 2 images