Diabetes? There's an App for That

Researchers are developing a smartphone-controlled system that can trigger insulin-producing cells implanted in the body.

How's this for a useful app? Researchers in China are developing a system that could one day allow diabetics to control their blood sugar using just a smartphone.

Well, not just a smartphone. There are some genetically engineered cells involved — along with near-infrared LEDs, subdermal hydrogel capsules, and electromagnetic field coils.

In a study published Wednesday in the journal Science Translational Medicine, Chinese researchers detail a process by which a dedicated smartphone app is used to “switch on” engineered insulin-producing cells in mice. The cells are implanted just under the skin in coin-sized sheath that also contain specialized LED lights.

When the LED is triggered by a wireless smartphone signal, the photosensitive cells toggle over into production mode, releasing insulin into the body. While these kinds of engineered cells are not new, the new light-based technique promises much greater control over how much insulin is delivered at any given time. And that, as any diabetic can tell you, is really the important part.

Lead researcher Haifeng Ye, professor of synthetic biology at East China Normal University, said that while the experiments were a success, the technology is still a long way from human clinical trials.

“At the present stage, it is a proof-of-concept study,” Ye said in an email. “We need to consider the reliability and the long-term therapeutic efficacy of this device in large animals before we can push this device to clinics.”

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Ye called the technique a semiautomatic solution, and it's still very much a work in progress. For one thing, those LEDs in the subdermal sheathe need to be powered by something. In the mouse study, the LEDs were powered by wireless induction, meaning the mice were required to stay inside a special electromagnetic field.

Because the LEDs emit a particular wavelength that can penetrate tissue, the cells could actually be triggered by an external light source — an LED bracelet, for instance. And because the LEDs don't need much juice, they could be powered by small batteries or wearables that generate electricity from movement and friction.

The research team is also working toward a fullly closed-loop solution in which sensors monitor blood sugar in the same wireless system that triggers the insulin-producing cells. Ideally, the system will let users both monitor and adjust blood sugar with the touch of a button. Built-in safeguards would prevent errant wireless signals or infrared light sources from triggering the LEDs or photosensitive cells.

“It might be a possibility,” Ye said. “The app would send an alarm and people would be able to turn off the system entirely.”

Mark Gomelsky, professor of molecular biology at the University of Wyoming, authored a companion article describing some of the technology that enabled the system.

Gomelsky said in an email that the Chinese study is an important proof-of-principle concerning optogenetics — the biological technique in which light is used to control cells in living tissue.

“What is remarkable is how precisely the engineered cells deliver the insulin and how easy it is to control them using an external (or implanted) source of far-red light,” he said.

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Gomelsky believes the research could have a much wider impact, as well.

“While the paper describes the system designed to treat diabetes, it can be readily modified to treat a variety of other illnesses,” he said. “I expect this paper to open the floodgate of studies that will ultimately constitute a new branch of medicine that relies on smart cell-based therapies. Engineered human cells will dispense drugs to patients in doses that are easy to adjust by light.”

Gomelsky also noted that the new system builds on important recent discoveries in related fields like microbiology and photobiology. For instance, the photosensitive-engineered cells were genetically assembled from four different species of bacteria.

“Leaps in medical technology are always based on discoveries in basic sciences,” Gomelsky said “It is good to remember this simple truism at the time when politicians call for drastic decreases in science funding.”

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