Researchers Develop Artificial Cells That Automatically Control Blood Glucose Levels

Researchers Develop Artificial Cells That Automatically Control Glood Glucose Levels
Fluorescence image of the artificial beta cells.
(Credit: Gu Lab, UNC-NC State)
Treating type 1 diabetes and some cases of type 2 diabetes has long required painful and frequent insulin injections or a mechanical insulin pump for insulin infusion. The major problem, however, is that these treatment options can't control blood glucose levels automatically and efficiently, as normal insulin-secreting pancreatic cells do.

Transplants of pancreatic cells can solve that problem in some cases, but are expensive, require donor cells that often are in short supply, require immune-suppressing drugs, and often fail due to the destruction of the transplanted cells.

Researchers from the University of North Carolina and NC State have now developed what could be a much more patient-friendly option: artificial cells that automatically release insulin into the bloodstream when glucose levels rise.

These "artificial beta cells" (ABCs) mimic the functions of the body's natural glucose-controllers, the insulin-secreting beta cells of the pancreas. The loss or dysfunction of these cells causes type 1 diabetes and many cases of type 2 diabetes. The idea is that the ABCs could be subcutaneously inserted into patients, which would be replaced every few days, or by a painless and disposable skin patch.

The ABCs are constructed with a simplified version of a normal cell's two-layered lipid membrane. The key innovation is what these cells contain: specially designed, insulin-stuffed vesicles. A rise in blood glucose levels leads to chemical changes in the vesicle coating, causing the vesicles to start fusing with the ABC's outer membrane - thus releasing the insulin payloads.

In the journal Nature Chemical Biology, the researchers report that a single injection of the ABCs into diabetic mice lacking beta cells quickly normalized the animals' blood glucose levels and kept those levels normal for up to five days. Control mice injected with no-insulin ABCs remained hyperglycemic.

The researchers plan further preclinical tests to optimize the artificial-cell approach before human studies are attempted.