Imagine having to poke yourself with a needle and draw blood. Now imagine having to do that up to eight times a day.
That can be what it’s like for many people with diabetes, a disease that causes our bodies to either resist the effects of insulin — the main hormone responsible for breaking down the sugar we eat into blood sugar — or to not produce enough of that hormone to keep our blood sugar steady.
But scientists are trying to make that painful process a thing of the past. And so far they have come pretty close.
Researchers at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine recently created a patch with tiny needles that can — at least in diabetic mice — deliver insulin more effectively than a conventional injection for up to nine hours.
The tiny needles, called microneedles, are mostly made of a material called hyaluronic acid (HA), which is an FDA-approved material used in everything from cosmetics to injectable implants and joint lubricants.
In the patch, the HA forms teensy pockets that hold the insulin and a special protein that detects blood sugar, or glucose, levels. When blood sugar levels get too high, the proteins react with the glucose, dissolving the pockets and releasing just the right amount of insulin into the bloodstream. Once the blood sugar levels go back to normal, the insulin stops being released. The process is a lot like how beta cells — specialised cells in the pancreas that release insulin — work in the bodies of people without diabetes.
“Inspired by the biomedical design, we tried to mimic the function of the beta cells and the releasing [of insulin] at the right time and in the right places,” Zhen Gu, one of the study authors and a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University, told Business Insider.
Gu said the microneedles are so small they feel almost like a mosquito bite when attaching to the skin. And although bites can be annoying, that immediate feeling is much less painful than a syringe.
The study was published last month in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Gu and his colleagues are still in pre-clinical trial stages, with human trials still a few years out. Eventually, the team hopes to make a smart patch that only needs changing every few days.
One of the benefits of the insulin patch, Gu said, is that it’s a complete system. In other words, the patch doesn’t just provide someone with insulin — it monitors their insulin levels too.
Joseph Wang, who leads a research group focused on designing better wearable devices at UC San Diego but wasn’t involved in this particular study, said this type of “closed-loop system” is his goal as well when it comes to designing wearable diabetes technology. One of the most important things about helping people with diabetes better monitor their blood sugar levels, he said, is cutting out any unnecessary steps and keeping it as pain-free as possible.
“[Injections] are inconvenient and minimise compliance,” Wang said. “if we can avoid this inconvenience and do it non-invasively — it’s challenging — but there’s lots of opportunity.”
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