Type 1 diabetes: How a new device may help with insulin production

Evan Walker
Evan Walker TheMediTary.Com |
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Monitoring blood glucose levels is important in the management of type 1 diabetes. RichLegg/Getty Images
  • Engineers at MIT say they have designed a device to help control type 1 diabetes with implantable islet cells.
  • The device, however, has only tested on mice so far, but researchers said it did keep their glucose levels stable.
  • Potential problems from using the device include diabetic ketoacidosis and fibrosis or scar formation around the device.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) say they have created a device for people with type 1 diabetes that may help produce insulin when needed.

Their findings are being published today in The Proceeding of the National Academy of Science.

The MIT engineers reported that their implantable device can carry hundreds of thousands of insulin-producing islet cells. Previous devices made for the same purpose failed and stopped producing insulin because they ran out of oxygen needed to create the insulin.

To combat this, the scientists created an oxygen factory on the device, allowing it to generate oxygen by splitting water vapor in the body.

The researchers said the device could potentially replace insulin injections in people with type 1 diabetes.

“Currently, islet cell transplant is limited to patients with a history of severe metabolic complications and consistent failure of insulin-based therapies,” explained Dr. Caroline Messer, an endocrinologist at Northwell Lenox Hill Hospital in New York who was not involved in the study.

“Long-term success rates are low and patients require lifelong immunosuppressive therapy. Conceptually, implantable islet cells that do not require immune suppression and create their own source of oxygen is nothing short of brilliant,” she told Medical News Today.

The device kept glucose levels stable for at least one month when implanted into mice. So far, it has only been tested in mice.

The researchers hope to eventually create a larger version of the device and test it in people with type 1 diabetes. They expect this device to be about the size of a stick of chewing gum.

“We are eager to see this technology translate, but it does take time,” said Dan Anderson, PhD, the study’s lead author and a professor of chemistry at MIT. “We hope to see this technology in humans within at most four years.”

Although the researchers remained focused on treating diabetes, they indicate this kind of device might be able to be adapted to treat other illnesses that require repeated delivery of therapeutic proteins.

“This technology allows for an improvement in the current approach to implantation of units containing cells that produce insulin in response to blood glucose levels without requiring invasive surgery,” said Dr. Eliud Sifonte, an endocrinologist at NYU Langone Medical Associates — West Palm Beach and Delray Beach in Florida who was not involved in the study.

“Historically, this approach has been difficult to maintain due to an inability to provide a good oxygen supply to those implanted cells,” Sifonte told Medical News Today. “Without oxygen, these cells die and fail. In this study, the group from MIT presents evidence of the sustainability of a device that prevents environments of low oxygen, which would be a threat to the chances of survival of the transplanted cells. They showed how mice rendered diabetic could improve blood glucose levels with transplanted cells without requiring interventions to prevent an autoimmune response. This is an exciting development that can hopefully open doors for new treatment options to become available in the near future.”

This device could be a game changer for people with type 1 diabetes, according to Messer.

“There is no substitution for the glucose-detecting abilities of islet cells; no closed-loop insulin pump can possibly mimic the blood sugar control provided by islet cells.”

Type 1 diabetes was once called juvenile diabetes. But, it can develop at any age, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

This condition can limit your pancreas’ ability produce enough insulin. When this happens, glucose levels can build up in the bloodstream, which is damaging to the body and can cause many symptoms.

According to the CDC, symptoms include:

  • Frequent urination, often at night
  • Being very thirsty
  • Losing weight without trying
  • Being very hungry
  • Having blurry vision
  • Nausea, vomiting, or stomach pain

“Type 1 diabetes is quite different from the [type 2] diabetes we constantly hear about in the media,” Caroline Thomason, RD, LDN, a registered dietitian based in Virginia, told Medical News Today. “Type 1 diabetes is not lifestyle-related, but rather is an autoimmune disease where the body attacks the pancreas’ ability to produce insulin. Thus, folks with this type of diabetes must take insulin exogenously for life.”

“Insulin dosing is based on many factors, including weight, eating habits, activity levels, stress, and medications,” Thomason added. “So, even though lifestyle isn’t one of the contributors to the development of type 1 diabetes, it certainly plays a big role in managing it well. A diet high in protein and fiber and moderate in carbs (with the correct insulin dosing, of course) can help support healthy blood sugar. Protein and fiber slow down digestion and absorption and, as a result, lessen spikes in blood sugar after eating. The typical recommendation of carbs per meal ranges from 30 to 75 grams depending on one’s needs, activity levels, and age, among other factors.”

Anne Danahy, MS, RDN, a registered dietitian and integrative nutritionist based in Arizona, provided Medical News Today with these suggestions to help manage type 1 diabetes:

  • First, insulin therapy is matched to carbohydrate intake and blood sugar levels. Counting carbohydrate grams at each meal and snack makes insulin dosing easier and more accurate, which means glucose levels are more likely to stay within a healthy range.
  • Refined carbohydrates such as sweets, baked goods, and white bread can raise blood sugar levels more quickly than complex carbs. Hence, eating fewer refined carbs and focusing on complex carbs is essential for any diabetes (or to prevent diabetes). Complex carbohydrates come from whole grains, legumes/pulses (lentils, chickpeas, beans), vegetables, starchy vegetables, etc.
  • A healthy diet also helps reduce the risk of type 1 diabetes complications, including cardiovascular disease, eye damage, kidney disease, and nerve damage. Eating more fruits and vegetables provides antioxidants that protect your blood vessels from damage and potassium to maintain healthy blood pressure. Lean proteins like poultry and fish, along with healthy fats such as nuts, seeds, and olive oil, help keep cholesterol levels in check.
  • Most ultra-processed, packaged, and fast foods contain significant amounts of sodium, sugar, and unhealthy fats, making it harder to manage blood sugar and increasing the risk of type 1 diabetes complications.

Whether you have type 1 or type 2 diabetes, the takeaway is that you should eat a healthy diet consisting of primarily whole foods and plants, Danahy said.

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