Making sure our bodies get enough insulin is a vital process done by our pancreas. The insulin produced by the pancreas turns glucose (also known as blood sugar) into energy for our body. Most of us never have to think about this process, unless you or someone you love has diabetes.
Diabetics cannot produce enough insulin on their own, so they have to constantly administer it to themselves through an injection. This can be a very frustrating process. Dr. Simon Friedman of the UMKC School of Pharmacy has been working to find a way to make the process simpler and more precise.
“The amount of insulin you need is always changing, and if you over or undershoot, it’s bad,” said Friedman. “You have to do multiple injections a day and the amount of the injection depends on how much or how little you eat, so the injections are an inconvenience.”
It can be difficult to deliver the correct amount of insulin because levels of blood sugar are constantly changing. Insulin pumps can be used to deliver insulin 24/7, but they can also be a hassle. The port has to be changed and reinserted to your body every day or two, and the tube can get crimped.
Friedman had a cousin who died from type 1 diabetes, giving him personal motivation to pursue this work.
About six years ago Friedman began working on a light activated insulin depot to make insulin administration less invasive and easier to control.
“The idea is that you would have a material that you inject just like insulin,” said Friedman. “Our idea is that it would be used just like insulin but instead of being immediately taken into the bloodstream like regular insulin, it would stay at the sight of injection, inactive until a light source would stimulate the material through the skin.”
The injection site would be covered by a light source, something similar to a watch band that can be shadowed to control the amount of light hitting the injection site underneath. The more light produced, the more insulin released.
“You would be getting information from a piece of technology called a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) that is commercially available,” said Friedman. “It measures insulin minute by minute. That, with the ability to vary insulin release minute by minute, could lead to very tight control of blood sugar. This way, you never overshoot or undershoot.”
With this idea, Friedman and his team began developing the way to make the light-activated depot work. Friedman describes the development stage as building with Legos, except with atoms and molecules.
In Nov. 2016, Friedman’s team published a study detailing success in a trial with diabetic rats. The trial used control animals who were injected with the material but blocked from the light, and experimental animals who were injected with the material and given light exposure.
Friedman completed the trials with the help of Dr. Karen Kover, an endocrinologist at the UMKC School of Medicine and Children’s Mercy Hospital. Various students throughout the years have also helped. Student Bhagyesu Sarode, who is currently working with Dr. Friedman, helped publish the animal trial.
“We found that the control animals showed very high blood glucose levels while the experimental animals had a big drop in blood sugar after the radiation,” said Friedman. “This was important because it meant not only did we release insulin, but there was bioactivity, meaning it behaved as normal insulin.”
Friedman received funding from the National Institute of Health in 2015 to continue his research.
“We are currently trying to improve certain properties,” said Friedman. “It’s fantastic that it worked in animals, but humans are much larger than a rat. We need to better optimize our material with superior properties that can produce more insulin.”