'Smart' diabetes patch uses real beta cells to adjust to blood sugar

A depiction of the beta cell patch, cross-section--Courtesy of UNC/NC State

The quest for a better diabetes treatment continues as researchers look for a way to substitute daily injections with a more convenient delivery method. And now scientists from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University have loaded a skin patch with insulin-producing beta cells to safely control blood sugar levels.

Building on work from last year, in which the same team of scientists developed a smart insulin patch loaded with straight insulin, this new patch goes straight to the source of the treatment. By filling the patch with beta cells as opposed to bubbles of insulin, the device can react to higher blood sugar levels when needed and still avoid the risk of hypoglycemia.

And unlike cell transplants that proved tricky in the past due to rejection, the patch keeps the beta cells separate from the body enough to avoid the issue without sacrificing the important role the cells play.

UNC/NC State's Zhen Gu

"This study provides a potential solution for the tough problem of rejection, which has long plagued studies on pancreatic cell transplants for diabetes," author Zhen Gu of both universities said in a statement. "Plus it demonstrates that we can build a bridge between the physiological signals within the body and these therapeutic cells outside the body to keep glucose levels under control."

The pancreatic beta cells sit on top of the patch, away from the immune system, packed into capsules made from biocompatible alginate. And, through hundreds of microneedles that react to rising blood sugar levels due to "glucose-signal amplifiers," the insulin could be delivered as needed in a mouse model.

"Managing diabetes is tough for patients because they have to think about it 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for the rest of their lives," fellow UNC professor and study co-author Dr. John Buse said. "These smart insulin approaches are exciting because they hold the promise of giving patients some time off with regards to their diabetes self-care. It would not be a cure but a desperately needed vacation."

- here's the UNC report
- get the journal abstract