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More than 30 million people in the U.S. have diabetes, according to CDC data, but new research from Tufts University may lead to an innovative drug-free treatment.
Researchers engineered pancreas beta cells that produce more than two to three times the usual level of insulin when exposed to blue light. Next, they grafted these cells into mice with diabetes. Results of the study were published in the September issue of the journal ACS Synthetic Biology.
Beta cells are specialized cells within the pancreas that secrete insulin, the hormone that controls blood glucose levels and allow cells to use glucose for energy, according to MedicineNet Chief Editor William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR.
"Type 2 diabetes is a condition in which cells cannot use blood sugar (glucose) efficiently for energy," according to Erica Oberg, ND, MPH, MD, of MedicineNet. Diabetes occurs when cells become insensitive to insulin and blood sugar becomes too high.
Scientists harnessed the power of optogenetics to create the light-activated beta cells. Optogenetics uses light to alter the activity of proteins. Researchers engineered beta cells using a gene that encodes for an enzyme that is responsive to blue light. When exposed to blue light, the PAC enzyme produces a molecule which – in this experiment -- increased the production of insulin in beta cells.
The light-activated beta cells produced lots of insulin when glucose levels were high and low levels of insulin when glucose levels were low. This is significant because the approach mimics the way a healthy pancreas secretes insulin in response to real-time blood glucose levels.
Existing treatment for diabetes includes medications that stimulate the pancreas to produce more insulin, Dr. Oberg said. This new approach could solve one important drawback of currently available treatment; if a patient receives too much insulin, low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) may result, which can be dangerous. In addition to being drug-free, the proposed treatment stimulates engineered pancreatic beta cells to release more insulin only when it is needed, potentially decreasing the risk of hypoglycemia.
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