Pathway to Stop Diabetes Scientist Generates Smart Insulin Patch

Zhen Gu, PhD
Zhen Gu, PhD, in his laboratory

Currently, people with type 1 diabetes and advanced type 2 diabetes rely on painful finger pricks and regular insulin shots – often multiple times a day – to manage their blood glucose levels. While such approaches have been essential to improving diabetes care over the last half-century, they are burdensome and less than ideal. They allow people to correct for high blood glucose after it occurs, but not to avoid experiencing high blood glucose levels altogether.

Significant advances in diabetes research over several decades have led to the development of continuous glucose monitors and wearable insulin pumps. Linking such technologies together through computer algorithms, creating a so-called "artificial" or "bionic" pancreas that automatically monitors and corrects high blood glucose has been the focus of substantial efforts to improve diabetes care.

Along these same lines, American Diabetes Association Pathway to Stop Diabetes Scientist Zhen Gu, PhD, a professor in the Joint University of North Carolina/North Carolina State University Department of Biomedical Engineering, recently published a paper describing the development of an innovative "smart insulin" patch that takes a slightly different approach to the artificial pancreas, imitating the body's beta cells by both sensing blood glucose levels and releasing insulin using a nanotechnology that leverages bioengineering, biochemistry and materials science.

The study, published in the prestigious biomedical journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was highlighted in several national news outlets, including a Washington Post article published on June 22.

Dr. Gu's research is supported by a $1.625 million grant from the American Diabetes Association's Pathway to Stop Diabetes initiative. The Pathway funding began in January 2015 and the project has demonstrated significant progress already.

The design of the thin silicon patch – about the size of a penny – includes more than 100 microneedles – each the size of an eyelash. The microneedles are loaded with enzymes that are able to sense blood glucose levels and trigger rapid release of insulin into the blood stream in response to high glucose.

Dr. Gu and his colleagues have tested this technology in a mouse model of type 1 diabetes where it was able to effectively lower blood glucose levels for up to nine hours – a promising result that sets up additional pre-clinical tests (in animals) and, hopefully, eventual clinical trials (in humans).

In addition, Dr. Gu's Association-funding supports his plans to expand the capacity of the patches to include glucagon – the hormone that counteracts insulin – in case blood glucose levels go too low. Low blood glucose is a dangerous potential side effect of insulin administration, and the grand plan for Dr. Gu's efforts is to provide people with diabetes a long-lasting, effortless technology that mimics a healthy pancreas by sensing and responding to both high and low blood glucose levels seamlessly.

Yu J, Zhang Y, Ye Y, DiSanto R, Sun W, Ranson D, Ligler FS, Buse JB, Gu Z. Microneedle-array patches loaded with hypoxia-sensitive vesicles provide fast glucose-responsive insulin delivery. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2015 Jun 22.

  • Last Reviewed: July 13, 2015
  • Last Edited: March 8, 2017

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