Fewer needles, no tubes

UMKC researcher invents non-invasive insulin delivery, offering hope for those with diabetes.

Amy Johnson, who has type 1 diabetes, has already benefitted from research. But if an invention from the UMKC School of Pharmacy can make the leap from lab to real life, Johnson will benefit even more.

The 2014 UMKC graduate is currently tethered to the latest-greatest insulin-delivery system: a pager-sized pump connected through a tube in the abdomen.

“It beats the alternative of eight injections a day, which is definitely not my cup of tea,” says Johnson, who was a UMKC Trustees’ Scholar and biology major. “But the pump has its drawbacks. I still have to change my pump infusion site every other day and I hit a nerve sometimes, which is painful. Sometimes I get the tubing caught on a doorknob. I’ve had to have one overnighted to me because it broke after I bumped into a door handle.”

So Johnson is intrigued by a novel insulin-delivery method that UMKC researchers are developing in the School of Pharmacy. The breakthrough could affect tens of millions of people with type 1 and 2 diabetes by replacing needle sticks with a beam of light.

“We’re aiming to improve the lives of diabetics all over the world,” says UMKC Pharmacy Professor Simon Friedman, who with his collaborators, has developed a new insulin-delivery method called a photoactivated depot or PAD.

Johnson wishes the PAD insulin-delivery system was already available. But, for now, it is years away from entering the marketplace.

The PAD would not only benefit the lives of people worldwide, but locally in Jackson County, Missouri, alone, where more than 48,000 people are living with diabetes, or nearly one of 10 county residents.

CIMG5097-TO-PLACEHere’s how the PAD works: Insulin is linked to an insoluble polymer by a connection that can be broken with light. The insulin depot is then injected just under the patient’s skin. When needed, insulin is then released from the polymer by a pulse of light through the skin.

The appropriate amount of insulin is then free to be absorbed into the body. Since one injected depot can contain a large amount of insulin, the PAD has the potential to eliminate hundreds of injections. In addition, because the length of the light pulse dictates the amount of insulin released and light can be administered at any time, the release of insulin is more finely controlled with the PAD system.

If successful, the PAD would eliminate the need for an insulin pump, like the one currently worn by Johnson, and it would be replaced with an armband device the size of a tiny mp3 player. All insulin pumps use a tube that connects the outside reservoir of insulin to the inside of the patient.

This introduces many problems, including clogging of the tube, irritation and infection, leading to poor outcomes. The PAD eliminates this physical connection to the outside world, allowing the insulin to be released non-invasively with a beam of light.

Friedman and his student co-authors, Piyush Jain and Dipu Karunakaran, have already successfully developed the first generation of PADs.

The results were published in 2013 in Angewandte Chemie, the highest ranked weekly chemistry journal in the world. The journal’s reviewer called the research “a paradigm shift” and “truly innovative.” This research has the potential to directly impact the health outcomes of millions worldwide.

In people with type 1 diabetes like Johnson, the pancreas no longer makes insulin. The beta cells have been destroyed and they need insulin shots to use glucose from meals.

People with type 2 diabetes make insulin, but their bodies don’t respond well to it. At first, the pancreas produces extra insulin to make up for it. But over time it isn’t able to keep up and can’t make enough insulin to keep blood glucose at normal levels.

Complications from diabetes include heart disease and stroke, high blood pressure, blindness, kidney disease, nervous system damage
and amputation.

Illustration by: Gentry Mullen
Illustration by: Gentry Mullen