Artificial insulin-releasing cells may make it easier to manage diabetes

Injecting the synthetic structures into mice regulated their blood sugar levels for several days

Artificial insulin-secreting cells

SUGAR CHECK Artificial insulin-secreting cells (shown in this false color cryo-electron microscopy image) could offer automatic, ultrafine blood sugar regulation for diabetes patients.

Gu Lab/UNC-NC State

Artificial cells made from scratch in the lab could one day offer a more effective, patient-friendly diabetes treatment.

Diabetes, which affects more than 400 million people around the world, is characterized by the loss or dysfunction of insulin-making beta cells in the pancreas. For the first time researchers have created synthetic cells that mimic how natural beta cells sense blood sugar concentration and secrete just the right amount of insulin. Experiments with mice show that these cells can regulate blood sugar for up to five days, researchers report online October 30 in Nature Chemical Biology.

If the mouse results translate to humans, diabetics could inject these artificial beta cells to automatically regulate their blood sugar levels for days at a time.

That would be a “a huge leap forward” for diabetic patients who currently have to check their blood sugar and inject insulin several times a day, says Omid Veiseh, a bioengineer at Rice University in Houston who wasn’t involved in the research. “Even if it were just a one-day thing, it would still be impressive,” he says.

an artificial beta cell
PACKING INSULIN Each artificial beta cell (as seen in this fluorescent image) contains insulin-stuffed pockets (green) that fuse with the cell’s outer membrane and release insulin into the bloodstream when blood sugar levels are too high. Gu Lab/UNC-NC State
Fashioned from human-made materials and biological ingredients like proteins, these faux cells contain insulin-filled pouches much like the insulin-carrying compartments inside real beta cells. And, similar to a natural beta cell, when one of these artificial beta cells is surrounded by excess blood sugar, its insulin sacs fuse with its outer membrane and eject insulin into the bloodstream. As blood sugar levels drop, insulin packets stop fusing with the membrane, which stems the cell’s insulin secretion.

Fabricating artificial insulin delivery systems that actually imitate the inner workings of real beta cells for ultrafine blood sugar regulation is “an engineering feat,” says Patrik Rorsman, a diabetes researcher at the University of Oxford who wasn’t involved in the work. The cellular imitations are “not as perfect as the beta cells we’re equipped with when we’re healthy,” he adds. For one thing, the faux cells eventually run out of insulin to release. But Rorsman believes that such artificial cells present a viable diabetes treatment.

Unlike transplanted beta cells — or other types of real cells genetically engineered to release insulin for diabetes treatment (SN: 1/15/11, p. 9) — these artificial cells could be mass-produced and have a much longer shelf life than live cells, says study coauthor Zhen Gu, a biomedical engineer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

When Gu and colleagues injected their synthetic cells into diabetic mice, the animals’ blood sugar levels normalized within an hour and stayed that way up to five days, when the cells ran out of insulin. The researchers plan to perform further tests on lab animals to assess the fake cells’ long-term health effects before running clinical trials.

Even for patients who manage their insulin with automated mechanical pumps (SN Online: 5/8/10), synthetic cells offer the advantage of more precise, real time blood sugar regulation, says Michael Strano, a bioengineer at MIT. The creation of the new faux cells not only poses a potential diabetes treatment, “but it’s also a bellwether. It’s slightly ahead of its time,” says Strano. “I think therapeutics of the future are going to look like this.”

Previously the staff writer for physical sciences at Science News, Maria Temming is the assistant editor at Science News Explores. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

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