Diabetes afflicts 9.3% of Americans–29 million people in the U.S. alone. Diabetic patients rely on insulin injections to maintain a healthy blood-sugar level. But one of the problems with insulin is getting the amount just right. Too little and your blood-sugar level can still rise too high, while too much of insulin can bring your blood sugar too far in the other direction, potentially reaching fatally low levels from an insulin overdose.
For most people, when you eat a meal your blood sugar rises a little bit, but not dramatically. In diabetic patients, blood sugar can spike after eating. That leads to long-term health consequences such as nerve and kidney damage. Insulin helps keep blood-sugar levels under control, but it’s not a perfect solution.
“One central challenge for patients that take insulin is that none of them get the right amount,” says Daniel Anderson, a professor of chemical engineering at MIT. “In our bodies insulin is very carefully regulated. It goes on and off in response to changes in blood sugar.”
Daniel Anderson and a team of medical experts at MIT are working on a new kind of engineered insulin that more closely mimics this automatic regulation in healthy patients. Anderson calls it glucose-responsive insulin. This specially engineered insulin would only switch on when a user’s blood glucose level rises, preventing insulin overdoses.
“The goal here is to try to engineer a switch into insulin that can make it smarter,” says Anderson. “We want to have a switch that will alter insulin’s performance depending on how much sugar is around it in the bloodstream.”
This “smart insulin” is still under development, and will require years of clinical trials. So far they have tested it in mice and will soon move to human trials. If successful in humans, it would eliminate the risk of diabetes patients injecting themselves with too much insulin. It would also make treatments much more manageable and free diabetes patients from having to monitor their blood-sugar levels as carefully. That would be a remarkable improvement in quality of life for nearly one in 10 Americans.