Insulin MicroNeedle Patch Promises To Make Life Easier For Diabetics

Diabetes is a group of metabolic disorders in which the body fails to properly regulate blood sugar levels. With approximately 387 million sufferers worldwide in 2014, it is a common target for biomedical researchers who hope to improve the lives of a vast number of patients. Type 1 diabetes, the more severe form, stems from a failure of the pancreas to produce sufficient insulin. It often must be treated by regular injections of the hormone, a not entirely pleasant state of affairs for sufferers. Now researchers have found a new way to deliver insulin that’s both painless and practical.

Typical insulin pen: this rather intimidating-looking needle may soon be a thing of the past for diabetics. Image from www.gerresheimer.com.Typical insulin pen: this rather intimidating-looking needle may soon be a thing of the past for diabetics. Image from www.gerresheimer.com.

Reported recently in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by the group of Prof. Zhen Gu, PhD., the new innovation is an insulin patch; equivalent to nicotine or birth control patches already on the market. Typically, insulin injections and the associated requisite blood sugar monitoring can be a painful process. It is also an unreliable method which yields poor glucose control even when carried out diligently. Inadequate control over glucose levels leads to many of the more unpleasant outcomes of diabetes including loss of limbs, blindness and kidney failure. Not only does this new patch deliver insulin consistently and painlessly – without the need for unpleasant self-injection – it is also “smart”. Which is to say it can sense blood glucose levels and deliver insulin accordingly. In this way, it can be described as a sort of artificial pancreas, operating independently in a closed loop. In particular, this independent operation will be valuable for school children or the elderly, who may be more likely to forget to self-administer.

An array of microneedles: each the size of a human eyelash, these tiny needles can administer insulin reliably and painlessly. Image from the site of Dr. Zhen Gu.An array of microneedles: each the size of a human eyelash, these tiny needles can administer insulin reliably and painlessly. Image from the site of Dr. Zhen Gu.

The patch is about the size of penny and feels something like a mosquito bite when applied. The “bite” comes from an array of tiny microneedles, each the size of a human eyelash, which pierce the skin in order to deliver insulin subcutaneously. Each needle is made up of an insulin-filled vesicle and glucose oxidase enzyme. When the blood achieves a hyperglycemic state, the glucose oxidase gets to work and the resultant environment causes the vesicles to dissolve and release the insulin. When compared with previous similar projects, this patch is the first to use this particular method of triggering insulin release and has thus achieved a faster response time to hyper and hypoglycemic states. 

So far, the patch has been tested only on diabetic mice using a variety of possible control measures. The scientists found that mice treated with the insulin patch consistently showed better control of their blood sugar. For example, a typical test involved injecting glucose directly to the bloodstream and monitoring the body’s ability to return to normalcy. Following injection, both treated and untreated mice displayed rapid spikes in blood sugar, but those with insulin patches were able to regulate their glucose levels back to normal within 30 minutes while those with control patches remained high even 2 hours later.

Though these devices still require human trials before they can progress further toward commercial availability, the number of sufferers who could be assuaged by this treatment means that the impetus for continued funding and studies is there. The researchers suggest insulin patches could be on the market in 2 to 3 years, fantastic news for those living with diabetes.

Via Science News and PNAS.