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Insulin Patch: Upcoming Diabetes Technology

Grandfather playing with granddaughter
August 28, 2015 (Updated: August 16, 2018)
Lily Moran

Out there on the horizon, where so many great things are first seen, is a potential life-changer for type 1 diabetics.

It’s a new insulin delivery technology that could replace the daily injections they need to regulate their hormone and blood sugar levels.

It’s painless. It’s far more convenient than several injections per day. And as if that alone isn’t cause for hope, it’s also safer. Injecting the wrong dose of insulin can have devastating consequences—blindness, limb amputations, diabetic comas, and even death.

But keep that “horizon” figure of speech in mind. The consensus among the development team and the research community is that this won’t be a marketable product for another 3–5 years—and only if it passes many tests to come.

It’s a “smart patch” that’s truly brilliant.

The breakthrough comes in the form of a penny-sized “smart patch” lined with painless microneedles 100 times thinner than the width of a human hair. The microneedles contain Insulin—and a bio-engineered enzyme that “knows” when the host body requires it.

The trigger is the decrease in blood oxygen that comes with an increase in blood glucose levels. When the trigger is hit, the microneedles are engineered to dissolve, releasing their insulin into the bloodstream.

The researchers tested how quickly the microneedles released their insulin compared with other technologies under development (one of which is pH-sensitive glucose-responsive nanoparticles). The result: the microneedles were “remarkably” faster.

Making the smart patch smarter

As if all this isn’t enough … there’s more.

Zhen Gu, of the University of North Carolina/NC State Department of Biomedical Engineering team says, “The whole system can be personalized to account for a diabetic’s weight and sensitivity to insulin, so we could make the smart patch even smarter.”

Experiments have indeed shown that the rate of insulin release could be adjusted by changing the enzyme dose, suggesting that Professor Zhen Gu is heading in the right direction: the smart patches appear to have the potential to be tailored to different ranges of blood glucose levels.

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The Drug-Free Diabetes Cure

Another way the development team is exploring to make the patch smarter is to make it last longer. It’s currently been shown, in trials with lab mice, to be effective for several hours. Further work “under the hood” on the patch’s already brilliant biomechanics is hoped to result in a patch that reliably kicks in an exact dose of insulin, as needed, for several days.

There’s promise here, as well. In one test, mice with the smart patches experienced rapid (within 30 minutes) declines in blood glucose, and their blood glucose remained normal for up to 4 hours. After that, their blood glucose levels gradually increased—but remained lower than those of mice treated without the patches for up to 9 hours.

Imagine the ecstatic reception among type 1 diabetics when they learn that several injections per day—for life—is a thing of the past. And a process as simple as putting on a bandage is all there is to managing their diabetes.

Bringing the horizon closer

Dr Zhen Gu says his team is “moving toward” pre-clinical studies, and from there, if successful, on to clinical trials, then to testing the patch on people. His best guess is that clinical trials are 3–4 years away.

Other authorities anticipate a longer development and testing timeline—”at least 5 years” before this method could be on the market.

That’s to be expected—there are still scores of unanswered questions about the smart patch.

Can the microneedles be tolerated long term? Will human skin respond to them differently than mice skin? Could a lung disease, for example, with symptoms similar to low blood oxygen levels, cause a dangerous, un-necessary release of insulin?

Answers will come in time. While we wait, and hope, it’s always tremendously encouraging to know how many incredibly smart people are working incredibly hard to make a better life for so many.

As one member of the development team put it, “If we can get these patches to work in people, it will be a game changer.”

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