Could This Very Different Type Of Light Therapy Be The Future Of Diabetes Treatment?
You don't need to be a statistics wiz to know that those numbers signal a big problem.
So what is the problem, exactly? The underlying issue in diabetes has to do with insulin, a hormone that's critical for managing blood sugar levels. In type 2 diabetes, the body's cells can no longer respond to insulin as efficiently, which means blood sugar levels go up to dangerous levels, damaging the body in multiple ways.
In this study, the Tufts University researchers engineered pancreatic beta cells (the cells that produce insulin) with a gene that encodes an enzyme called photoactivatable adenylate cyclase (or PAC). As you might guess from the name, when exposed to blue light, PAC triggers a series of events in the beta cell that causes it to increase insulin production.
And not just a little bit, either. When they tested this out in mice, blue light exposure caused them to increase their production by 200 or 300%. As Emmanuel Tzanakakis—professor of chemical and biological engineering and co-author of the study—explained: "We are actually using light to turn on and off a biological switch."
The current treatments for type 2 diabetes either inject insulin straight into the person to increase their levels or aim to increase the production of insulin by pancreatic cells via pharmaceutical medication. Unfortunately, there's a lot of room for error with these treatments, as they require the person to measure their blood sugar levels throughout the day and keep their medication on hand at all times.
This new avenue of treatment reduces the complexity for the patient in a major way; it also eliminates the risk of dangerously low blood sugar—which can often happen in current diabetes treatments due to overcompensation of insulin—since the beta cells only produce insulin in direct response to increasing blood sugar levels.
Essentially, the researchers were able to restore part of the natural connection between increasing blood sugar levels and insulin production, a connection that goes awry in type 2 diabetes. The results of the study, published in ACS Synthetic Biology, showed that implanting these super light-sensitive beta cells led to better glucose tolerance, better regulation of blood sugar, reduced hyperglycemia, and higher levels of plasma insulin when exposed to blue light—all without medication.
"In this way, we can help in a diabetic context to better control and maintain appropriate levels of glucose without pharmacological intervention," said Tzanakakis. Many diabetics would rejoice at the idea of not having to use insulin injections at all. "The cells do the work of insulin production naturally and the regulatory circuits within them work the same; we just boost...beta cells to get them to make more insulin only when it's needed," Tzanakakis continued.
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