New research could eliminate insulin injections for diabetics

For diabetics, it’s a painful routine: frequent finger pricks to take the blood samples necessary to monitor their blood sugar level and insulin injections to maintain normal levels.

Determining the accurate dose level of insulin can also be difficult, which poses its own health risks.

Dr. Zhen Gu, assistant professor in the UNC/NCSU Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering, and his team are working to make things better for the 8.3 percent of the U.S. population and 371 million people worldwide who have diabetes.

“I have diabetics in my family and I know their painful experience using traditional administration methods,” said Gu. “We want to develop novel insulin delivery methods to improve diabetics’ quality of life, especially from the perspectives of new materials and new formulations.”

Gu and his team have developed a network of nanoscale particles that can be injected into the body and releases insulin when blood-sugar levels rise.

The nano-network is composed of a synthetic nanoparticle mixture that includes a solid core of insulin and glucose-sensing elements.

“We will develop new glucose-responsive formulations for insulin delivery. Such formulation is expected to ‘smartly’ sense the blood sugar changes and release insulin at the right time,” Gu said.

Alternatively, Gu’s team has recently developed an ultrasound-triggered insulin delivery platform. Diabetics would use a hand-held device to apply focused ultrasound waves to the site of the nano-network, painlessly releasing insulin into the bloodstream.

“We’ve tested the technology in mice, and one injection was able to maintain blood sugar levels in the normal range for up to 10 days,” said Gu. “Even one month is also expected.”

Gu and his research team will test in vivo studies using miniature pigs in preparation for clinical trials.

“Diabetes research is extremely urgent due to the increased population,” said Gu.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicts that if current trends continue, 1 in 3 adults in the U.S. will have diabetes by 2050.

Hopefully, by then, new technology will make it easier for diabetes patients to receive insulin and monitor blood sugar levels.