While there are many hurdles to overcome before the technology could be ready for commercial use, the experiment shows what could be possible for people living with diabetes.
Could people living with diabetes someday use a smartphone app to deliver insulin within the body? That’s the hope, after a report in Science showed how researchers did this with mice.
This engineering feat builds on the work in cell therapy in other fields, but with a twist: this time the therapeutic cells are controlled outside the body.
Researchers from Shanghai, led by Jiawei Shao, PhD, first designed special cells to deliver insulin; these were implanted in diabetic mice in a bio-compatible protective cover, which also contained the trigger that would get the cells working: red light. More precisely, the cells were packaged with wirelessly powered red LED lights, which could be turned on and off by an external electromagnetic field.1
These special cell/LED implants, called HydogeLEDs, were placed under the skin in the mice, which allowed researchers to control them with a smartphone app. Not only were the researchers able to engineer the cells to deliver insulin in response to the red light, but they also connected the system to a Bluetooth-enabled blood glucose meter, which let them measure how insulin changed glucose levels.
People with type 1 diabetes cannot produce insulin, so it must be administered daily—either with injections or with an insulin pump. While insulins themselves and pump technology have improved greatly in recent years, both methods require piercing the skin, both to deliver insulin and to monitor glucose levels with blood tests. Implanting cells that could regulate insulin with a smartphone app would offer vastly improved quality of life, if hurdles can be overcome.
The technology is a long way from commercial use. Right now, the smartphone app actually interacts with an electromagnetic field that turns on the red light, which means the mice could only be treated if they were inside a ring. Restraining movement would be unacceptable for a person living with diabetes. And the cells only lasted 15 days—future research would have to extend their life to make this treatment practical.
Still, the development excites those seeking better quality of life for people living with diabetes. “How soon should we expect to see people on the street wearing fashionable LED wristbands that irradiate implanted cells engineered to produce genetically encoded drugs under the control of a smartphone?” wrote molecular biologist Mark Gomelsky, PhD, in a related commentary. “Not just yet, but [the work] provides us with an exciting glimpse into the future of smart cell-based therapeutics.”2
1. Shao J, Xue S, Yu G, et al. Smartphone-controlled optogenetically engineered cells enable semiautomatic glucose homeostasis in diabetic mice. Sci Trans Med. 2017; 9(387): eeal2298. DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.aal2298.
2. Gomelsky M. Photoactivated cells link diagnosis and therapy. Sci Trans Med. 2017; 9(387): eaan3936. DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.aan3936.