While completely manageable, type 1 diabetes can be a pain—literally. Managing the condition sometimes involves tedious processes like testing blood sugar and injecting insulin. While type 1 treatments have improved over the decades—and now even include pumps that administer insulin—it still might requires regular insertions throughout the weeks. Patients also need to be consistent and timely when administering doses, too. Otherwise, they might find themselves with dangerously low blood sugar.
That’s why MIT engineers have developed an implant that pumps insulin for patients when they need it. The device, described in a study published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, uses living pancreatic cells to deliver insulin.
In trials, the implant kept the blood sugar levels of diabetic mice stable for a month. The team now hopes to scale the device to humans to help treat those with type 1 diabetes—and they believe it could be used to treat other diseases as well.
“You can think of this as a living medical device that is made from human cells that secrete insulin, along with an electronic life support-system,” senior author Daniel Anderson, a chemical engineer at MIT, said in a statement. “We’re excited by the progress so far, and we really are optimistic that this technology could end up helping patients.”
The device helps solve several problems with the traditional insulin injection method. For one, normal injections aren’t as efficient as the body’s natural insulin-production process. This means that patient blood sugar levels are still not as good as a person with a normally functioning pancreas—even with regular injections.
Moreover, patients need to remember to inject themselves at least oncee time daily. This creates a routine burden for the patient that patientsthey need to uphold—otherwise, they might find themselves in serious medical trouble.
That’s why the MIT team turned to living pancreatic islet cells. These cells are capable of detecting changes in a patient’s blood sugar levels and producing the appropriate amount of insulin when needed. While you can receive these cells via transplantations from human donors, they can be rejected by the body—which means patients need to regularly take immunosuppressive drugs.
One workaround for this is to cover the cells in a flexible device to prevent them from being attacked by the immune system. However, it would also need an oxygen supply to keep the cells alive.
That’s why the MIT team created a U.S. quarter-sized implant that could both protect the cells while producing oxygen. The device itself obtains oxygen from water in the body. It’s also completely wireless and is powered using a small magnetic coil outside of the body that the team said could be worn as a patch on the skin.
In trials, the team gave the device to a group of diabetic mice, while another group received a device that contained just the pancreatic cells without the oxygen creator. The mice that had the oxygen-making device had normal blood sugar levels over the course of a month, while the other group had dangerously high blood sugar within two weeks.
Now, the team hopes to develop a device for humans that would be roughly the size of a stick of gum. The implant could also be used to deliver things like drugs or proteins to help treat other diseases in humans as well.
“We’re optimistic that it will be possible to make living medical devices that can reside in the body and produce drugs as needed,” Anderson said. “There are a variety of diseases where patients need to take proteins exogenously, sometimes very frequently. If we can replace the need for infusions every other week with a single implant that can act for a long time, I think that could really help a lot of patients.”