Interesting experiments have been carried out by researchers at Tufts University regarding the possibility of designing cells that produce insulin in the body to be activated “on command.” The researchers performed experiments on diabetic mice by transplanting engineered pancreatic beta cells into their bodies.
These cells were capable of producing insulin, two to three times higher than the typical level, with exposure to light. These engineered cells could be of great use, even for humans if the method also worked on them, to compensate for the inadequate production of insulin that is normally found in diabetics. In the study, published in ACS Synthetic Biology, the researchers were able to control glucose levels in diabetic mice substantially without pharmacological interventions.
In type 2 diabetes, which is the most common form, the cells within the body are no longer able to produce an adequate level of insulin, an important hormone for the body, which leads to a high glucose level (hyperglycemia). In type 1 diabetes, however, beta cells, i.e. the cells that produce insulin, are destroyed by the immune system and this leads to an almost complete lack of the hormone. Currently, the only treatments are performed with the administration of drugs or direct injections of insulin.
With this new method, so far only tested on mice, the production of insulin itself is kept constant by specially engineered cells and by a new technique, optogenetics. This technique allows the proteins in the cells to change their type of activity according to the light beam that hits them. For this reason, researchers have developed particular beta cells of the pancreas designed so that a gene inside them can be activated when exposed to blue light. When “activated” this gene, in turn, activates an increase in insulin production in beta cells.
With a technique like these, it may be possible to help a diabetic person “better control and maintain adequate glucose levels without pharmacological intervention. The cells naturally do the work of insulin production and the regulatory circuits within them work the same way; we simply increase the amount of cAMP (cyclic adenosine monophosphate molecule) temporarily in beta cells to induce them to produce more insulin only when needed, “as explained by Emmanuel Tzanakakis, professor of chemical and biological engineering at Tufts and corresponding author of the study.