Painful insulin injections could become a thing of the past for the millions of Americans who suffer from diabetes, thanks to the creation of a “smart insulin patch,” a new invention from researchers at UNC and N.C. State that detects increases in blood sugar levels and reactively secretes insulin into the bloodstream.
The patch—a thin square no bigger than a penny—is covered with more than one hundred tiny needles, each about the size of an eyelash. These “microneedles” contain microscopic storage units for insulin and glucose-sensing enzymes that rapidly release the insulin when blood sugar levels get too high.
The research study behind the project was funded by a pilot grant from the North Carolina Translational and Clinical Sciences (NC TraCS Institute) and a “Pathway to Stop Diabetes” Research Award from the American Diabetes Association.
“We have designed a patch for diabetes that works fast, is easy to use and is made from nontoxic, biocompatible materials,” said co-project leader Zhen Gu, a professor in the joint UNC/N.C. State Department of Biomedical Engineering. Gu also holds appointments in the UNC School of Medicine, the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy and the UNC Diabetes Care Center. “The whole system can be personalized to account for a diabetic’s weight and sensitivity to insulin,” he added, “so we could make the smart patch even smarter.”
The researchers found that they could tune the patch to alter blood glucose levels within a certain range by varying the dose of enzyme contained within each of the microneedles. They also found that the patch did not pose the hazards that insulin injections do. Injections can send blood sugar plummeting to dangerously low levels when administered too frequently.
“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.”
“The hard part of diabetes care is not the insulin shots, or the blood sugar checks, or the diet but the fact that you have to do them all several times a day every day for the rest of your life,” said Dr. John Buse, director of the UNC Diabetes Care Center, who contributed to the study and is also the director of the NC TraCS Institute and past president of the American Diabetes Association. “If we can get these patches to work in people, it will be a game changer.”
Diabetes affects more than 387 million people worldwide, and that number is expected to grow to 592 million by the year 2035.
Gu honored as top innovator
Zhen Gu, who co-led the research study that developed the smart insulin patch, has been named one of MIT Technology Review’s “Innovators Under 35” for his work on developing novel drug-delivery systems for treating cancer and diabetes.
The annual list recognizes exceptionally talented young innovators from around the world in a variety of fields. Previous winners include Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page and Sergey Brin.