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Researchers Engineer Insulin-Producing Cells Activated by Light for Diabetes Treatment

Researchers from Tuft University have created synthetic cells that produce insulin with exposure to light. These cells were successfully transplanted into diabetic mice and were able to produce 2-3 times the normal amount of insulin.

These cells were designed to help supplement naturally insulin-deficient mice as a means of developing alternative treatments for diabetes and insulin-resistant disease. The study, published in ACS Synthetic Biology, demonstrates an initial model for treating diabetes through a non-pharmacological means.

Genetic Turbo Mode

This study was designed with the intention of increasing insulin production to maintain blood-glucose stability while maintaining a responsive link between the two. In other words, automating the process to be as mimetic of natural glucose production as possible. Researchers relied on a field of study known as optogenetics to achieve their goal.

Researchers used this optogenetic approach to engineer a photoreactive pancreatic cell that, when exposed to blue light, causes the increased production of glucose. The engineered pancreatic cells produce insulin under normal light conditions but when exposed to blue light produce up to 300% more. The cells are also regulated by blood-glucose levels such that they will not release excess insulin when blood-glucose levels are low. The benefit of this approach is the avoidance of potentially lethal states of hypoglycemia.

In this case, blue light acts as sort of trigger for an innate “turbo mode” where these pancreatic cells significantly increase their production of insulin.

Emmanuel Tzanakakis, a professor at Tufts University and Co-Author of the study, had this to say:

“We can help in a diabetic context to better control and maintain appropriate levels of glucose without pharmacological intervention. The cells do the work of insulin production naturally and the regulatory circuits within them work the same; we just boost the amount of cAMP transiently in beta cells to get them to make more insulin only when it’s needed.”

Fan Zhang, a graduate student and first author from this study, commented on the advantages of this particular optogenetic approach for treating insulin-resistance:

“There are several advantages to using light to control treatment obviously, the response is immediate; and despite the increased secretion of insulin, the amount of oxygen consumed by the cells does not change significantly as our study shows. Oxygen starvation is a common problem in studies involving transplanted pancreatic cells.”

Researchers noted that future direction may include embedded lighting devices, artificial pancreatic devices, and remotely triggered light sources.

Importance of Insulin

Insulin helps control blood glucose levels by regulating the amount being stored vs. absorbed. The dysfunction of this hormone is pivotal in the development and progression of Type II diabetes—a metabolic disease affecting some 30 million Americans according to CDC data.

Current FDA-approved treatments for Diabetes include drugs that bolster the production of certain types of pancreatic cells or directly supply insulin into the bloodstream via injections.

Aside from pharmaceutical intervention, recent research has shown that dietary change can effectively treat Type II diabetes. Such diets are consistent with low carbohydrate intake and follow ketogenic guidelines to shift the body from a glucose-burning metabolic state to a ketone-burning one (R). Research in this field is still ongoing but initial results are promising.