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MIT engineers design a device that could free people with Type 1 diabetes from insulin injections

Unlike previous attempts, this self-sustaining device requires no external wires or batteries and can be powered wirelessly.

MIT engineers design a device that could free people with Type 1 diabetes from insulin injections
Representative Cover Image Source: Pexels | Artem Podrez

Imagine a world where diabetes patients no longer need to endure the daily ritual of insulin injections. For individuals with Type 1 diabetes, this could become a reality, thanks to a groundbreaking implantable device developed by MIT engineers. This innovative technology not only houses hundreds of thousands of insulin-producing islet cells but also comes equipped with its own onboard oxygen factory. This oxygen generator extracts oxygen by splitting water vapor found within the body, ensuring that the islet cells continue to produce insulin, even after implantation. The implications of this medical marvel are profound, as it has the potential to revolutionize diabetes treatment and bring us closer to achieving functional cures.

Representative Image Source: Pexels | Pavel Danilyuk
Representative Image Source: Pexels | Pavel Danilyuk

For individuals with Type 1 diabetes, managing blood glucose levels is a daily struggle, often involving frequent insulin injections. However, this approach falls short of replicating the body's natural ability to regulate glucose levels. The ideal solution would involve transplanting cells capable of producing insulin in response to fluctuating blood glucose levels.

In the past, diabetes patients have received transplants of islet cells from human cadavers, which can offer long-term diabetes control. However, this approach requires the use of immunosuppressive drugs to prevent the body from rejecting the transplanted cells. Recent advancements have seen the success of using islet cells derived from stem cells, but patients still require immunosuppressive drugs.

The MIT engineers have taken a different path to tackle the challenges of maintaining transplanted islet cells in the body. They have designed an implantable device that not only protects the islet cells from the immune system but also provides a sustainable source of oxygen. Unlike previous attempts, this device utilizes water vapor splitting to generate oxygen continuously. The technology at the core of this device is a proton-exchange membrane, originally used in fuel cells to generate hydrogen. Within the device, this membrane splits water vapor found abundantly in the body into harmless hydrogen and oxygen. The generated oxygen is then stored and delivered to the islet cells through an oxygen-permeable membrane.

Representative Image Source: Pexels | Nataliya Vaitkevich
Representative Image Source: Pexels | Nataliya Vaitkevich

What makes this device truly remarkable is its self-sufficiency. It requires no external wires or batteries. The energy needed for water splitting is supplied through resonant inductive coupling, a wireless power transfer method. This wireless power is transmitted from a magnetic coil positioned outside the body to a small, flexible antenna within the device. As a result, the device doesn't need frequent recharging, and the external coil could be worn as a patch on the patient's skin.

The efficacy of this device was put to the test in diabetic mice, with promising results. The mice that received the oxygen-generating device maintained stable blood glucose levels, akin to healthy animals. In contrast, mice with the non-oxygenated device experienced elevated blood sugar levels within a matter of weeks. Notably, the presence of scar tissue around the implants did not impede the device's ability to control blood glucose levels. This suggests that insulin was still able to diffuse out of the device and glucose into it, even in the presence of fibrotic capsules.

While the primary focus of this device is on diabetes treatment, its potential extends far beyond. It opens the door to delivering cells that produce various therapeutic proteins, offering solutions for multiple diseases that require prolonged protein delivery. The device's self-sustaining oxygen supply has far-reaching implications. It paves the way for creating "living medical devices" that reside within the body and produce necessary drugs when needed, potentially sparing patients from frequent infusions.

The future holds exciting possibilities, with plans to adapt the device for testing in larger animals and, eventually, in humans. The goal is to create an implant about the size of a stick of chewing gum that can function for extended periods. Researchers are optimistic that this technology could redefine the treatment landscape for diabetes and potentially provide hope for patients dealing with a range of chronic diseases.

Representative Image Source: Pexels | PhotoMIX Company
Representative Image Source: Pexels | PhotoMIX Company

MIT engineers have brought us one step closer to an era where diabetes patients can live free from the burden of constant injections. Their implantable device, with its built-in oxygen factory, has demonstrated remarkable success in stabilizing blood glucose levels in diabetic mice. Moreover, it has the potential to offer long-term solutions for a variety of diseases that require sustained protein delivery. This groundbreaking technology could transform the lives of patients, ushering in a new era of medical treatment.

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